Native American leaders to Congress: State lawmakers are targeting Native voters

State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, testified on Thursday, March 14, before the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on the subject of missing and murdered indigenous women. Special to the Forum

PIERRE, S.D. — Native American leaders told U.S. House members on Tuesday, April 16, that they believe North and South Dakota are deliberately attempting to suppress Native American voters living on reservations.

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Elections held a field hearing on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota on Tuesday, where eight tribal leaders and activists testified to the hurdles Native Americans face when attempting to cast their ballots.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from North Carolina, said at Tuesday’s hearing that it is Congress’ duty to protect the right to vote.

“What I have heard here today seems to suggest to me that there is a deliberate effort in both Dakotas to suppress a portion of the vote,” he said.

North Dakota’s voter identification law made national headlines leading up to the 2018 election, when former-U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, was up for reelection.


Heitkamp won by less than 3,000 votes when she was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, a win that Charles Walker, the Chairman of the Judicial Committee for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said was largely attributed to the Native vote.

Months after Heitkamp’s win, the North Dakota Legislature enacted its voter ID law, which requires voters to present a valid identification with a street address in order to cast a ballot. Many Native Americans living on reservations do not have street addresses, instead using a P.O. box as an address, because of the rural nature of their reservations. Activists have argued in and out of court that the North Dakota law infringes upon these citizens’ ability to vote.

Walker also noted during Tuesday’s hearing that some living on reservations may not have a permanent dwelling, but remain on the reservation and are qualified to vote.

Some simply do not have the money or resources to obtain a tribal- or state-issued ID.

Alysia LaCounte, who works as general counsel for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, said the north-central North Dakota reservation’s unemployment rate is nearly 70%, and the reality of its poverty “escapes many U.S. citizens’ comprehension.”

An ID from Turtle Mountain costs $15.

“Fifteen dollars is not high, but $15 is milk and bread for a week for a poor family,” LaCounte said Tuesday.

According to several of Tuesday’s testimonies, tribes in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm election rushed to provide IDs to residents so they could vote and waived the usual fee.


Spirit Lake Tribal Chairperson Myra Pearson said that between Oct. 22 and Nov. 8, her tribe issued 665 IDs. In a typical month, she said they issue around 30.

But without charging residents the usual fee, Pearson said “the tribe has to eat this cost.” At Spirit Lake, she said that cost added up to $7,000 between supplies and overtime for employees.

Ranking member of the committee U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, questioned whether North Dakota’s voter ID law really suppressed the Native vote. Turnout in the 2018 midterm election was historically high, he noted.

North Dakota State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a Democrat, retorted that high voter turnout was part of a nationwide trend, and was thanks to activism and voter organization. Chairperson of the committee U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, said that high turnout in 2018 does not indicate that a problem doesn’t exist.

“Just because your results are better than some might have expected due to your strength and your fortitude, it still doesn’t make it right,” she said.

North Dakota’s voter ID law isn’t the only way that Native American voters are disenfranchised, the panel said. Buffalo said that district lines are “most definitely” gerrymandered in order to stifle Native votes.

Buffalo is one of two Native American legislators in North Dakota’s 141-person Legislature, making up 1.4% of the body. In South Dakota, five of 105 legislators are Native American, making up 4.8% of the Legislature.

According to the U.S. Census, 5.5% of North Dakota’s population is Native American, and 9% of South Dakota’s is.


District lines are redrawn every 10 years in both North and South Dakota. Buffalo said she is not aware of any efforts from North Dakota to reach out to tribal governments when redrawing district lines.

Additionally, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation CEO Roger White Owl said that those living on reservations often have to travel long distances in order to vote because the state provided too few polling locations. Sometimes, after travelling up to 100 miles to vote, he said, people are turned away because their polling location changed without their knowledge.

White Owl said “states have no right to dictate our voting,” and that the federal government should instead decide the voting rules that will work on reservations.

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at or 651-290-0707.
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