North Dakota Tribes Organize to Assign Residential Voting Addresses Before Election Day

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With Election Day less than a week away, Native American tribes in North Dakota are hurriedly organizing to assign residential voting addresses in order to comply with a new state law. Public Radio International has more:

Terry Yellow Fat shares his home on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota with his wife, his son and his nephew. 

All four of them, he says, have different street addresses on their North Dakota driver’s licenses, even though they live in the same house — a sign of how complicated a new state voter identification requirement for a residential address could be for residents of the state’s reservations. 

Yellow Fat says he went and got an official residential street address assigned a year or so ago through the county’s 911 emergency coordinator, but when he tried to use it to receive a package, the deliveryman couldn’t find his house. Instead, he told Yellow Fat the address had sent him to a local bar a few blocks away. 

Now, Yellow Fat, 69, a retired teacher and school superintendent, is not sure what to do about voting in next month’s general election, which features a hotly contested US Senate race between incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Representative Kevin Cramer. Yellow Fat’s license has a residential street address, as required to vote, but he knows it isn’t the one he was assigned by the 911 coordinator — and he’s worried about using it. 

“I’ve been told by an attorney that maybe if you use that they might try to get you for voter fraud,” he said. “So I’m at a loss on what to do here. Maybe not even go.” 

At issue is a new state law that was allowed to stand (if only temporarily) by the U.S. Supreme Court – and which flies in the face of local practice regarding addresses:

A US Supreme Court decision earlier this month allowing the voter identification requirements to go into force in North Dakota for the general election has sparked a massive, unprecedented effort to help Native American voters in North Dakota comply — and vote. 

Many people on the reservations lack residential street addresses — a key voter ID requirement — because they have never needed them. Post office boxes are commonly used for mail, and directions rely on landmarks. 

Yellow Fat said he and his family have different addresses on their identification. For example, he said he made up a number on the spot, but used the street sign at the corner for the street. His wife, he said, offered the address assigned by the sheriff. 

The numbers on Standing Rock houses represent not an address but relate to when the structure was built by the tribe.

In response, local leaders and community members are taking matters into their own hands:

Leaders of the state’s tribes are pouring resources into making sure residents obtain addresses in some way and offering free updated tribal identification that would meet the requirements, available up through Election Day. Nonprofits are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and promising the cash will go towards helping Native American voters in the state…

“There’s fear in the community that if we don’t vote this time things might happen to us worse,” said Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s director of external affairs and one of the primary organizers of the tribe’s efforts to help members comply with the state’s identification requirements. 

Standing Rock had issued 250 new tribal identification cards as of Oct. 25, Finn said, and was expecting about 100 students shortly — high school seniors who were old enough to vote. 

At the Spirit Lake reservation Thursday afternoon, there was a line of tribal members waiting to get new identification when a reporter called. On the Turtle Mountain reservation, demand for the new IDs were so high, the tribe’s machine overheated and began melting IDs, according to a Forum News Service report.

The state says there are official ways to obtain addresses, but residents are seeking other ways as well:

North Dakota officials are instructing people without residential street addresses to contact the 911 emergency coordinators in their county to request one. 

In some cases, though, tribes are finding other ways to assign addresses.

Asked if poll workers would accept tribal identification with addresses that hadn’t been issued through the 911 system, including ones that residents had made up, [Secretary of State Al] Jaeger said it was “hard to speculate on.” If voters had identification meeting the requirements, poll workers “most likely” would accept it, he added — though he urged tribal leaders to steer people to the 911 system. [Jaeger is currently running for re-election. – DMCj]

“I guess all I can do is go back and say if the people issuing the address are concerned that it is not right, I would hope that they would make every effort to see that it’s a correct address and help those people out,” Jaeger said.

The Rev. John Floberg, a priest for two Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock, in Cannon Ball and Fort Yates, has obtained addresses through the 911 system for both churches and is planning to open them as homeless shelters the week of the election. This will provide tribal members who have no other possible residential address the opportunity to use the church/shelter addresses to vote.

“Is this finding a loophole?” Floberg asked. “If the state of North Dakota wants to play games then we’ll find ways to do that.”

If one or more contests on the ballot are close in North Dakota, this wide range of addressing approaches may come under scrutiny. It’s yet another reminder that the little things – right down to the number on your house – can be important when it’s time to vote. This one is definitely worth watching … stay tuned.


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