ID law may complicate voting for North Dakota students

FARGO - McKinley Theobald has volunteered in Fargo-Moorhead and canvassed in Iowa for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Cass County is planning a media campaign to educate potential voters about changes to the state law further tightening the identification required at polls in North Dakota before the June primary. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO – McKinley Theobald has volunteered in Fargo-Moorhead and canvassed in Iowa for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But the North Dakota State University junior still doesn't know where or how she will vote for Sanders in November, should he become the nominee.

"I wanted to register in North Dakota because this is where I live now. I spent the entire school year; it's where I've invested my life," Theobald, 23, said Tuesday. "But my parents are now moving to Illinois, and I have no connection to Illinois, but it's easier for me to vote in Illinois, and that's just kind of absurd to me."

To help students navigate North Dakota's voting requirements, the Cass County Commission has approved a $20,000 voter education advertising campaign, which is expected to begin in late April, prior to the June 14 primary. Likewise, the secretary of state is planning to advertise to the general population, and NDSU's student government will have a "Rock the Vote" campaign.

Even when students know the law, many find it discouraging, especially since 2015, when the Legislature eliminated the option for college students to use a student identification certificate to vote on campus. Students now need to either change their address to their Fargo residence or vote in their home precinct.

That's difficult for students like Theobald, who's in the dorms now but has no idea where she'll be living in the fall. She thinks it may be easier to register in Illinois, where she has never lived.

"It's something that drives me absolutely mad because, if I'm living in a place and I'm invested in the community, then why should I not be able to vote here?" she said.

"It does do a little bit to discourage students from voting," student government representative Jacob Dailey said of the recent change. "That being said, students do have the ability to vote."

Too much of a hassle

All of the NDSU students interviewed by The Forum said they think it's important to vote in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

"I just want to make sure that we have somebody qualified and that'll be good for our country," said junior Ally Joersz. The Democrat from Mandan is worried about that with these candidates.

Joersz has changed her address on her driver's license, but her friend, sophomore Shania Wilson, didn't realize that was a requirement. Once she found out, Wilson said she probably wouldn't go to the hassle of making the change.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said voters can change their address online, without paying for a new driver's license. When they go to the polls, that address will be reflected in an electronic pollbook. Voters must do this 30 days before the election.

But some students, such as 29-year-old junior Alec Bruns, are hesitant to change their address to one that's impermanent.

"It's just easier to use my parents' address for bills and whatever else," Bruns said. "I don't know how long I'll have this address."

Bruns, a Democrat from just outside Minneapolis, plans to vote absentee. In 2014, he could have voted in North Dakota with a student ID certificate.

"The certificates were easier for students who aren't from Fargo and aren't from North Dakota," said Dailey, who meets with policymakers on behalf of NDSU's student government. "One thing we do know about student voters is that if the process is complicated, they won't vote."

A study conducted by NDSU in 2014 states that 3.6 percent of students were turned away from the polls due to residency requirements that year.

"The cynic in me makes me think they did it to keep out-of-towners from swaying elections," Bruns said. "Younger generations tend to be more left-leaning."

But "it makes sense," said junior Haylee Beehler, a Republican from Mandan. "As far as keeping track of who is who and not double voting."

Junior Bailey Hawbaker, a Republican from Portal, was concerned that with certificates, Minnesota students would vote here and "slightly sway North Dakota's votes," she said.

Creating awareness

The Cass County campaign will focus on creating awareness of changes to voter law in Cass County. In addition to the 2015 changes, a law passed by the Legislature in 2013 requires voters to show identification before they can vote.

The accepted forms of identification are a driver's license, a nondriver's ID card, an official tribal ID or a long-term care certificate prescribed by the secretary of state. A military ID or passport is acceptable for uniformed or overseas citizens.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for people to go to vote and cast their ballot," said Cass County Election Coordinator DeAnn Buckhouse. "I don't want a lot of people coming to the polls on Election Day and have the wrong address on their ID."

The campaign will focus on student voters and is scheduled to run in NDSU's newspaper, The Spectrum, as well as across Forum Communications properties.

Dailey said the NDSU student government also plans to have a "Rock the Vote" campaign that will provide voter education resources to students on campus.

Jaeger didn't know the details of his office's advertising campaign, but he said it will be directed to the general voting population and focused on the need to update driver's licenses.

He disputed the notion that the Legislature has made voting difficult for students.

"All college students or anybody that's of voting age needs to decide where it is that they live, and they need to think ahead on this. This is not a decision that's made the day of the election," Jaeger said.