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North Dakota tribal members sue over voter ID laws

BISMARCK — North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger was served with a lawsuit Thursday by seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who claim that recent changes to the state's voter identification laws infringe on their right to vote.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bismarck asks the court to find that voter ID requirements passed by state lawmakers in 2013 and 2015 "disproportionately burden and disenfranchise Native Americans," and to declare them unconstitutional and stop Jaeger from enforcing them.

"I think we just want to go back to the way it was before, because I think that was working out well," said Matthew Campbell, an attorney with the Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs along with Bismarck attorney Thomas Dickson and attorney Richard de Bodo of Santa Monica, Calif.

Jaeger said he had not reviewed the lawsuit and couldn't comment on it.

He noted the 2003 Legislature made tribal ID an acceptable form of voter ID, "but we'll have to see what their concern is."

"The same requirements are for all North Dakota residents," he said.

The 45-page complaint claims some plaintiffs were refused the right to vote in November 2014 because their tribal ID didn't list a current residential address. It says some tribal members can't afford a new tribal ID or the documentation needed to obtain a state driver's license or non-driver ID card.

North Dakota is the only state in the nation without voter registration, having abolished it in 1951. An interim legislative committee is exploring whether the state should reinstate registration.

The lawsuit argues that Native Americans in North Dakota have higher rates of poverty and homelessness than the general population, face greater health threats and are less likely to have transportation. It also notes that none of the 27 driver's license sites in North Dakota are located on the state's five Indian reservations.

"The strict voter ID requirements of HB 1332 and 1333 interact with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by Native American and White voters to participate in the political process and elect their preferred representatives," the lawsuit states.

Republican lawmakers passed House Bill 1332 in 2013, requiring voters to bring an acceptable form of ID showing their current address and birth date to the polls, saying it would help eliminate voter fraud.

The bill also took away poll workers' ability to vouch for a voter's identity, as well as voters' option of signing an affidavit on the back of the ballot swearing their eligibility to vote.

Campbell said North Dakota is the only state with strict ID requirements and no such fail-safe provision, which the lawsuit claims violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

The legislation approved last year, House Bill 1333, clarified that the only valid forms of voter ID for in-person voting are a current driver's license or state ID card issued by the Department of Transportation, an official form of ID issued by a tribal government and a long-term care certificate.

The lawsuit also seeks attorney fees and costs.

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