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North Dakota officials hold voter ID events on tribal nations after years of legal dispute

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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, 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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FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — Jennifer Longie recently moved to a different home on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

She's adamant about voting on Nov. 3, so she went to a voter ID event in Fort Totten on Wednesday, Sept. 23, to ensure she would not run into hurdles.

"I wanted to make sure everything was in place so I could vote," Longie said.

As part of an agreement to ensure all Native Americans, like Longie, in North Dakota have easier access to voting in U.S. elections, the state held a licensing event on the Spirit Lake Reservation Wednesday to help more tribal citizens become eligible to vote in the Nov. 3 general election.

The effort comes after years of dispute between tribal nations in North Dakota and the state itself.

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The Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a joint lawsuit against Secretary of State Al Jaeger in 2016, alleging that many Native Americans on their reservations were disenfranchised due to a restrictive voter ID law enacted in 2013. The law made it mandatory that every voter in North Dakota have identification with a current residential address, which many on reservations do not have.

Later this month, North Dakota officials plan to hold events for issuing ID cards in Fort Yates on Monday, Sept. 28, and on the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Many tribal nations, like the Spirit Lake Nation, do not mark every street and road. Some buildings have addresses solely because when local counties and townships were established long after tribal citizens were living on the land, the entities gave buildings an address for the U.S. government. The Dakota people did not have a say in the matter, said Spirit Lake Nation Chairman Doug Yankton.

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Rachel Mount, Chief Examiner, License Division of NDDOT, interviews Kaylee Hill of Ft. Totten as she applies for a ND state identification card Wednesday in Fort Totten. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Some residents do not have a permanent address on their tribal ID, Yankton said.

Earlier this year, Jaeger agreed to settle two voting rights lawsuits brought by the Spirit Lake Nation and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several individual voters. This eased financial and logistical burdens brought on tribes through the 2013 voter ID law, and solidified more protection for the state's Native Americans' right to vote.

This new agreement between the state and the tribes will benefit more than 7,000 citizens collectively from the Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, according to the Native American Rights Fund — an equal rights organization that helped represent both tribes in the 2016 lawsuit.

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Yankton said an opportunity for Spirit Lake citizens to get an ID to vote was important, as some feel their voices are not heard in U.S. elections.

"A chunk of our people tend to vote Democrat, and the one thing I want people to know is that their vote counts," he said. "A lot of people say 'Oh, it's only one vote,' but it is very important to get out and vote."

Tribal Council member Lonna Street said she was grateful to the state for putting on Wednesday's event, and the state also held a similar event on the reservation in June before the primary election.

Every citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation gets a P.O. box, which is where they receive their mail and in some cases is their only mailing address.

Not only can citizens use the state-issued ID cards for voting, but Yankton said they can use them for purchasing products or get into places that require an ID.

Wylee Belgarde, a Spirit Lake citizen, said he had a tribal license already, but he wanted to get a state ID so it would be easier for him to purchase cigarettes.

Native American voters who do not have a residential street address are able to locate their house on a map at the polls or when applying for an absentee ballot, according to the Native American Rights Fund.

“For the last four years, we have fought hard to protect the voice of Native voters in North Dakota. The ability to vote should never depend on home ownership or whether the government has assigned your home an address,” said Matthew Campbell, a Native American Rights Fund attorney, in a statement. “We are relieved that North Dakota has recognized the need to hear all of its citizens’ voices.”

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Doug Yankton is the Spirit Lake Nation Tribal Chairman. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Readers can reach 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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