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North Dakota must pay tribes $450K in costs from voter ID lawsuits

Tribal nations sued North Dakota over a state requirement that voters have an ID with a valid residential street address.

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Kim Three Irons, Fort Totten district representative on the Spirit Lake Reservation, was among members of the Spirit Lake Nation applying for North Dakota state identification cards Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, for voting in the upcoming election. Rachel Mount, right, operations manager for drivers licenses in Bismarck, processes her information. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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BISMARCK — A panel of judges has ordered North Dakota to pay more than $450,000 in attorney fees and costs accrued by tribes that sued the state over voter identification requirements that they alleged disproportionately burdened Native Americans.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a Friday ruling upheld a 2020 judgment requiring North Dakota to pay the plaintiffs, which included members of the Spirit Lake Nation, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, $452,983 for attorney fees and costs resulting from the lawsuits.

These tribal nations sued over a state requirement that voters have an ID with a valid residential street address. Many of the five tribal nations with which the state shares borders do not have street addresses, and the tribes said that even if an address has been assigned to a residence, the homeowners are often not notified of it.

The tribes also said many roads on reservations have been assigned multiple names and many homes were given multiple, conflicting numbers.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland approved a settlement between the tribes and the state in April 2020 but reduced the amount by 60% after the tribes originally asked for $1.1 million for attorney and litigation fees. Hovland stated the original ask was not reasonable.

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Secretary of State Al Jaeger, on behalf of the state, appealed the decision. He said the tribes’ filing for attorney fees was submitted too late, but the appellate court last week stated the failure to meet the filing deadline was an “excusable neglect.”

In April 2020, the Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe entered into a binding agreement with the state that eases financial and logistical burdens for Native Americans to vote on reservations, according to the Native American Rights Fund.

Prior to the 2020 election, North Dakota held voter ID events on multiple reservations to ensure tribal members had the proper identification for voting.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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