Federal judge rules in favor of tribal members, blocks N.D. voter ID law
BISMARCK - The federal judge overseeing a lawsuit filed by Native Americans who claim recent changes to North Dakota's voter identification laws are unconstitutional and discriminatory has granted a preliminary injunction requiring the state to p...
BISMARCK – Recent changes to North Dakota’s voter identification laws have placed an “undue burden” on Native Americans and other voters, a federal judge ruled Monday in ordering the state to put its 2012 voter ID laws back into place.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland granted a preliminary injunction requested by seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who sued Secretary of State Al Jaeger in January claiming the voter ID laws are unconstitutional and discriminatory.
“Although most voters in North Dakota either possess a qualifying ID or can obtain some form of acceptable identification, a safety net is needed for those voters who cannot obtain a qualifying ID with reasonable effort,” Hovland wrote.
Hovland prevented the state from using its current voter ID laws without some form of the “fail-safe” provisions eliminated by lawmakers in 2013 -- allowing a poll clerk to vouch for the person’s voting eligibility or allowing the voter to sign an affidavit swearing their eligibility.
Jaeger said his office will comply with the ruling.
“Essentially we’ll do what he says we have to do, which is go to what the law was prior to 2013,” he said.
Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called it an “excellent ruling” and said he hopes it will lead to a permanent injunction.
“These laws are blatantly discriminatory. This is the ultimate solution in search of a problem by the North Dakota Legislature,” he said.
Hovland’s decision comes on the heels of court rulings in the last two weeks in Texas and North Carolina that declared voter ID laws to be discriminatory.
The North Dakota lawsuit challenges the voter ID requirements passed by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature in 2013 and 2015, claiming they’re unconstitutional and “disproportionately burden and disenfranchise” tribal members.
The laws require that voters bring an acceptable form of ID showing their current address and birth date to the polls. The only valid forms of ID for in-person voting are a current driver's license or state ID card, an ID issued by a tribal government and a long-term care certificate.
Republican lawmakers said the changes would help eliminate voter fraud. But the lawsuit claims some Native American plaintiffs were refused the right to vote in November 2014 because their tribal ID didn’t list a current address, and that some tribal members can’t afford a new tribal ID, creating a “pay to vote” scenario.
Hovland wrote that the “ill-advised repeal of all such ’fail-safe’ provisions has resulted in an undue burden on Native American voters and others who attempt to exercise their right to vote.”
Jaeger disagreed that the law imposes an undue burden.
“The law is very simple. It was written to be very straightforward. But the judge has made his ruling and we have to follow it,” he said.
Hovland found that the state “has produced no evidence suggesting that the public’s confidence in the electoral process will be undermined” by allowing voters disenfranchised by the voter ID law to vote under a fail-safe provision as before. He noted North Dakota is apparently the only state with no fail-safe provisions in its election laws.
The plaintiffs had presented “undisputed evidence that more than 3,800 Native Americans may likely be denied the right to vote in the upcoming general election in November 2016 absent injunctive relief,” Hovland wrote.
“The public interest in protecting the most cherished right to vote for thousands of Native Americans who currently lack a qualifying ID and cannot obtain one, outweighs the purported interest and arguments of the State,” he wrote. “It is critical the State of North Dakota provide Native Americans an equal and meaningful opportunity to vote in the 2016 election. No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote.”
The Legislature meets in special session on Tuesday and could attempt to pass legislation to address the judge’s ruling, Dickson said.