GRAND FORKS - More than 16,000 voter affidavits were filed in this year's general election, according to a survey of North Dakota county auditors.
Less than two months before the Nov. 8 general election, a federal judge ordered North Dakota to provide the affidavit as an option to voters. The elimination of the affidavit option by a 2013 state law is part of a lawsuit brought against North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger by seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
Affidavits allow voters to cast a ballot even if they cannot provide a valid form of identification. The voter swears to being a qualified elector in a particular precinct, and falsely swearing to an affidavit is a Class A misdemeanor.
Donnell Preskey Hushka, government and public relations specialist with the North Dakota Association of Counties, surveyed the county auditors and found 16,395 affidavits were filed across the state this year.
"The auditors are now going through the process of verifications to verify that the address and person who said they lived at X address is the person they claimed to be on the affidavit," she said in an email.
The affidavits represent less than 5 percent of the 349,945 ballots that the Secretary of State's Office said were cast. But it's also higher than the 10,519 affidavits filed in the 2012 election, according to Preskey Hushka.
There were 3,196 affidavits filed in Grand Forks County this year, the second-most in the state behind Cass County, according to a spreadsheet provided by Preskey Hushka.
Grand Forks County Auditor Debbie Nelson said there is a "possibility" of voter fraud that comes with the availability of voter's affidavits.
"But I think most people complete them because they don't have a proper ID, but they have lived here, they do meet the qualification to vote," she said.
The legal challenge over North Dakota's voter ID law comes amid a nationwide debate over the merit of such requirements. Proponents argue they're necessary to protect the integrity of the country's electoral system, although the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed studies that found "few instances of in-person voter fraud," according to a 2014 report it produced on voter ID laws.
The plaintiffs in the North Dakota case argue the changes passed by the state Legislature in 2013 and 2015 disproportionately burdened Native Americans.
State Rep. Randy Boehning, R-Fargo, authored the 2013 legislation that did away with the affidavit option. He said this week he preferred the "strict voter ID" rules.
"It makes voting a lot easier," Boehning said. "You give them your ID, they scan it, they hand you your ballot and you're good to go. It slows up the process by filling out affidavits."
Boehing also raised concerns that ballots cast by people voting in the incorrect precinct still would be counted.
But Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said the affidavits should continue to be available.
"It's clear that voters are utilizing it, and that it's an effective measure of maintaining access to the polls," she said.
Jim Silrum, the deputy secretary of state, expects there to be "many ideas put forward" during the coming legislative session addressing voter ID.