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North Dakota’s Voter ID Law Is Latest to Be Overturned

August 2, 2016
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by Sarah Childress Senior Digital Reporter, FRONTLINE Enterprise Journalism Group

A federal judge has ruled against North Dakota’s voter ID law, the fifth time in the last two weeks that a state has been forced to abandon policies restricting access to the ballot box ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Over the past five years, more than a dozen states passed laws that imposed barriers to the ballot. Voter ID laws — which require people to present some form of photo ID at the polls — are the most common restriction. This election, voters in nine states were preparing to go to the polls under new rules.

But that tally has ticked downward in recent weeks. On July 20, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ law, among the most restrictive in the country, discriminated against blacks and Latinos. Days later, on July 29, a federal appeals court panel struck down restrictions in North Carolina — including a strict ID provision — ruling that they targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.” 

That same day, in Wisconsin, a federal judge ruled that voters without ID must still be allowed to vote, saying that a state law, ostensibly intended to prevent voter fraud, led instead to disenfranchisement. A judge also threw out a temporary rule in Kansas that required voters to show proof of citizenship when they cast their ballots, in addition to swearing to the fact when they registered, as is required by federal law.

On Monday, in North Dakota, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland struck down the voter ID law in that state because it created an undue burden for Native Americans. “No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote,” he said.

Al Jaeger, North Dakota’s secretary of state, told FRONTLINE that the state doesn’t have time to appeal before the 2016 election. “We feel we have no choice but to comply with the judge’s ruling, and we’ll make plans accordingly,” he said.

Voting rights advocates said they were pleased with the spate of decisions. “It confirms that courts understand that these laws are not only unnecessary but they are in many cases designed to — and in all cases have the effect of — unduly burdening voting rights, particularly for voters of colors,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project.

“But it’s not over yet,” he added, pointing out that some of the states, including North Carolina, Kansas and Wisconsin, were already planning to appeal the decisions. Given that the general election is less than 100 days away, the courts aren’t likely to rule before then, he said, although that’s still a possibility.

A Problem for Native American Voters

North Dakota passed a law in 2013 that tightened identity requirements at the polls to require one of five forms of ID. Previously, voting precincts were so small that poll workers usually knew everyone who came to cast a ballot. The law allowed them to ask for some form of identification from those they didn’t recognize. Those without ID could still vote if they signed a form swearing to their identity.

Under the new law, all voters were required to present an ID. Only five types of ID cards were allowed, and there were no exceptions — those without proper ID were turned away.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed another law further tightening ID requirements. College IDs were banned, as were military IDs, unless service members were stationed away from home. All ID cards had to be current and show a residential address — post office boxes were not acceptable.

Because of that new requirement, many tribal ID cards were rendered invalid, since many homes on reservations don’t have a residential address. People there often use post office boxes to receive their mail.

Seven Native Americans filed suit, arguing that the law disproportionately impacted — and threatened to disenfranchise — Native American voters. Nearly 24 percent of Native American voters lacked an acceptable ID, compared to 12 percent of non-Native voters, the suit said. And about 48 percent of Native Americans lacked the underlying documents to obtain one. It also noted that on average, Native Americans must travel twice as far as non-Native Americans to visit a driver’s license site.

The judge noted that the state didn’t dispute any of the data presented, and that voter fraud in the state has been “virtually non-existent.” The decision mandated that the state revert to the 2013 provisions, which included a “fail-safe” for voters who couldn’t obtain an ID.

“The public interest in protecting the most cherished right to vote for thousands of Native Americans who currently lack a qualifying ID and cannot obtain one, outweighs the purported interest and arguments of the State,” the judge said.

Jaeger, the secretary of state, said the voter data in the lawsuit was inaccurate, but that the state didn’t contest it in court because officials didn’t think the judge would rely on it to make a decision. He also said that he remained concerned about the potential for fraud, adding that when voters sign affidavits to vote instead of presenting an ID, the counties have no resources to go back and double-check whether the voters were truly eligible. “So yes, we can’t prove that we have voter fraud, but we can’t prove that the other way either,” he said.

North Dakota’s legislature meets again in January, and Jaeger said he plans to work with them to come up with a new law that addresses those concerns. “We’ll come up with something,” he said. “…[B]ut right now we have a job to do based on his ruling.”

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