GRAND FORKS – The North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office and Grand Forks Democratic lawmakers are drafting separate bills to tweak the state’s voter identification law. 

The proposed legislation comes after reports of people being turned away from the polls on Election Day due to identification problems. This year marked the first major election since North Dakota passed a law in 2013 that removed the option to sign an affidavit, allowing voters who didn’t have proper ID to swear under penalty of law that they are eligible to vote.

Jim Silrum, deputy secretary of state, said Friday a proposed bill would allow someone with an acceptable North Dakota ID that doesn’t have an up-to-date address to use items like a bank statement, utility bill or U.S. Postal Service change of address form dated 30 days prior to the election to show a current address.

“The legislation being drafted is trying to provide an option for those individuals that have not (updated their identification), that they can fall back on something else,” Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. “This is what we heard (and) this is how we’re trying to respond to address those situations.”

Meanwhile, North Dakota Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider and state Rep. Corey Mock, the 2010 Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said this week they planned on introducing legislation allowing for people without sufficient ID to vote with a provisional ballot. Both lawmakers represent District 42, which includes the area around the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Some of the identification problems that arose on Election Day had to do with students not having their current address on their IDs.

Provisional ballots would not count until voters have proved they are eligible voters for a particular precinct. A vote cast using an affidavit was automatically counted, Schneider said.

It remains to be seen what, if any, support either proposal will have in the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 6.

North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, said he’s reserving judgment until he learns more about what happened on Election Day.

“If we have to change the law, then we will have to change the law,” he said. “To me, it’s not acceptable that we would have people who are legitimate, legal voters not be able to vote.”

Strict trend

The North Dakota Legislature’s passage of the voter ID law in 2013 came as part of a national trend toward stricter identification requirements.

In 2000, 36 states required no identification at the polls, including North Dakota. By 2014, just 19 remained, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

North Dakota is now one of three states, along with Arizona and Ohio, that are considered a “strict non-photo” identification state, according to the NCSL. Seven other states have strict photo identification laws.

Supporters have said the voter identification laws are an effort to prevent voter fraud. But critics argue there’s little evidence of fraud, and stricter requirements disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters.

Schneider wants to go back to the previous system allowing for voter affidavits, but said provisional ballots are at least an improvement on the current system. He said the secretary of state’s proposal is a “recognition that the law is not working as well as it should.”

“There have been thousands of people who have (voted by affidavit) and only a handful of voter fraud allegations, none of which have influenced the outcome of an election in North Dakota,” Schneider said.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there were only nine potential cases of voter fraud identified out of more than 10,500 voter affidavits filed in the 2012 election in North Dakota.

Jaeger, however, expressed some reservations about the logistical challenges that provisional ballots might present.

North Dakota may be the only state with a strict voter identification law that does not currently allow for provisional ballots, according to Wendy Underhill, the program manager for the elections division of the NCSL.

Frustration

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Several voters voiced their frustrations via email to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office on Election Day, the results of an open records request showed.

In one instance, a woman said she changed her address on the Department of Transportation’s website when she moved in June, but her old address was listed on the computer on Election Day. She was told she would have to vote at her old address, but her information was not listed there either. She was able to vote “only because one of the women working at the polling place said that it was wrong to turn away voters.”

Others said they were not aware that they had to have an identification updated with their current address 30 days prior to Election Day to vote in that precinct. Another was frustrated by not being referred to a new polling place.

“I was simply told that I couldn’t” vote, the complaint said.

Secretary of State employees responded to many who had questions about where they needed to vote and what materials they would need to bring with them to the polling place.

The University Democrats of North Dakota heaped criticism on Jaeger for “oppressive implementation” of the new voter ID law and a “lackadaisical advertising campaign” that didn’t inform students of the required identification, in a press release issued last week.

In an interview, Jaeger dismissed the criticisms as “partisan attacks” and said the election went well overall.

“I would say that the partisans will embellish that to say a lot more people weren’t able to vote than probably in reality there really was,” Jaeger said. “What I do know is that 255,128 people were able to vote. And so, I would suspect the ones who didn’t have the identification are a very small percentage.”