North Dakota Native American Disenfranchisement 2018

Disenfranchisement Among Native Americans

Lindsay Mellan, December 2018

Native Americans unfortunately aren’t strangers to discrimination and throughout U.S history have had to face all different struggles regarding discrimination. It wasn’t until 1924 that the United States allowed Native Americans to gain U.S citizenship without having to give up their tribal citizenship. The Indian Citizenship Act (1924) signed by President Calvin Coolidge granted citizenship to all Native Americans, because before that, full birthright citizenship excluded Native Americans. Native Americans who wanted U.S citizenship before the Indian Citizenship Act might have included: Native American women who married a U.S. citizen, Native Americans who left reservations and were part of mainstream society, and in 1919 Native American veterans of World War I. These were the only options Native Americans possible had to receive citizenship, however as of June 2, 1924 (under the Indian Citizenship Act, that took immediate effect) Native Americans were granted to be part of separate nations within the U.S on designated reservation land and still be U.S citizens (similar to duel citizenship). The act read that “all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided that the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.” [1]

However, citizenship does not mean automatically being granted the right to vote and not everyone (who was Native American) would be granted the right to vote until 30 years later. When it comes to voting the states are in charge for it is a states issue, governed by state laws. Simply being a citizen doesn’t mean you were granted the right to vote, and for Native Americans the right to vote in every state was not passed until 1962 with the Voting Rights Act. New Mexico was the last state in the union to discard Native American voters until this act was passed. For Native Americans however, that evidently would not be the end to all their voting problems. During the 2018 midterm elections, North Dakota Native American voters who were eligible to vote in the primaries were concerned they would no longer be able to vote for the Midterms, because of a new state law regarding valid voters identification, creating political chaos and awareness for citizens to work together to fight back on this issue.

North Dakota is one of the states in the U.S that carries a large population of Native Americans who are eligible voters. In fact, of U.S states North Dakota holds the 6th rank regarding largest amount of population being Native Americans. Of North Dakota’s population, over 5% (about 750,000) are Native Americans and live on one of the five reservations in the state. These reservations are Fort Berthold, Lake Traverse, Spirit Lake, Standing Rock, and Turtle Mountain. For those living on Native American reservations buildings typically lack numbers or even streets signs and even those who have a house that has an official address, may not necessarily know what it is. In North Dakota Native Americans make up a large chunk of the Democratic Party as well and have been allowed to vote in previous elections based on P.O box address, however, that is no longer the case.

As of October 9th, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a North Dakota state law requiring specific state voter identification could take immediate effect requiring that voters have a residential addresses, this includes absentee ballots as well. It was feared that requiring an residential address would disenfranchise Native Americans which could cause a problematic 2018 midterm election, however, these setbacks won’t stop Native Americans efforts when it comes to voting, regardless of the election outcome.

Now some may say that voter I.D isn’t a bad thing, or that it’s not an unusual request to ask of citizens, considering that 34 states do have some form of voter I.D requirements. However, to limit voting eligibility to specifically residential addresses would result in targeting a specific minority in North Dakota. Journalist Erick Ortiz noted that the law required, “An estimated 5,000 tribal citizens who may have I.Ds with a post office box address to obtain either a new state-issued or tribal identification showing their street address in order to vote” [2]. Also North Dakota citizens had less than a months notice; with such a short notice of time even the process of getting a new I.D would most likely take too long with the upcoming election around the corner in November. Even on the official voter registration website for North Dakota states that “other information and identification requirements may change prior to an election”[3], not providing a clear up front understanding of what is to be required for voters in the midterm election.

When it comes to voting rights among states, typically some states try making it easier for citizens to vote and encourage a large voter turnout. However, that is not the case for every state. North Dakota is just one state among eight others who currently have strict voting requirements. By having strict voting requirements it hinders the potential of high voter turnouts, considering voter results is already low to begin with. Having strict voting requirements is also another way to keep control of power or a political party in a state. By having standards target a specific group of people who may vote in a particular way will only benefit the opposite side, through limiting change by discarding a potential group of voters.

North Dakota is a predominantly Republican controlled state when it comes to legislature and this voting I.D dilemma dates back to 2012 when Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, won her Senate seat with the support from Native Americans. Her victory sparked a debate shortly after about requiring addresses on voter IDs, and it is no coincidence that a month before the election it would be put into place. Her victory came as a shock in 2012 for it was predicted that her Republican opponent, Rick Berg, was going to win. With this devastating loss for Republicans they wanted to find an issue to blame, in which Native American voter turnout was part of the answer that they were looking for. Heidi Heitkamp had won the seat by fewer than 3,000 votes, the statistics from the 2012 election shows that results with Heidi Heitkamp were 160,752 (50.5%) of the votes to Rick Berg who had 157,758 (49.5%) of votes. [4] With this problematic requirement for the 2018 senate election, it has been predicted that 5,000 Native Americans will be affected, which happens to be the gap of votes that had helped her win back in 2012.

As a result of the firm I.D requirements there has been quite the uproar among the states citizens. There was lawsuits being pressed towards North Dakota’s Secretary of State Al Jaegeras, specifically from the Spirit Lake Sioux and a lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund and the Campaign Legal Center. Protesters and voting rights activists are also doing their best to help the cause. Native Americans have had been advised to even use tactics such as calling 911 in order to get a proper registered address. Blake Nicholas a journalist covering this story had said that “Tribes issued thousands of free qualifying IDs to tribal members in the run-up to the election. Activist groups organized efforts to educate voters and get them to the polls … and even came up with an alternative street address mapping system for the Standing Rock Reservation that allowed at least nine people to vote.” [5]. As well as many active citizens offering rides to anyone who needed a way to get to the polls or assistances in any way outside polling areas if denied. With these efforts many anxious Native Americans were able to make it to the polls, yet, it wasn’t sure if the the state would hold these addresses to be accountable. Phyllis Young, a longtime tribal activist leader had this to say “it (referring to her address number) had fallen off the side of the house at some point. Her own home has a number only because she added one with permanent marker.” [6] This, as questionable as it sounds, was allowed, so it makes you question the authenticity behind the Voter Address Identification. For it not only caused Native Americans to scramble last minute to get valid I.Ds. It makes you question the state’s consistency considering it was already questionable to begin with being so close to the Midterm Election.

When the election was around the corner, supporters in North Dakota have helped issue more than 2,000 new identifications. Native groups such as Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux, Spirit Lake Sioux and Three Affiliated Tribes have all helped with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations towards the cause. [7] Regardless of the outcome Native Americans should be proud. For not only fighting back for the right to vote and having their voices be heard, having this story brought to media’s attention, and motivating others as well as Native Americans to vote and register.

After the Midterm Election, Heidi Heitkamp did lose her reelection seat to her Republican opponent Kevin Cramer. Kevin Cramer had won the Senate seat with 179,720 (55.5%) votes and Heidi Heitkamp having 144,376 (44.5%). [8] As for the court cases, all cases were dropped, being in favor towards the state. As for valid votes, only few Native Americans were turned away from the polls and that absentee ballots were counted less than in the previous election (with issues regarding to valid I.D). However, this loss should not be looked at as the end. It brought many Native Americans and organizations together, with more than 2,000 Native Americans having valid identification now. Also, awareness was brought to media’s attention that voter discrimination among minorities is still alive to this day. For Native Americans a positive take away is that they made their voices heard in a state law that would otherwise strip them away of their ability to vote.


[1] On this day, all Indians made United States citizens. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2] Erick Ortiz “‘All We Want Is Our Vote’: Native Americans Fight Fallout of North Dakota’s Voter ID Law.”, NBCUniversal News Group,

[3] “Voter Registration in North Dakota.” DMV.ORG,

[4]North Dakota. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[5] Anon, (2018). [online] Available at:

[6] Astor, Maggie. “In North Dakota, Native Americans Try to Turn an ID Law to Their Advantage.” The New York Times, 30 Oct. 2018,

[7] AP NEWS. (2018). Thousands of Native voters in North Dakota getting free IDs. [online] Available at:

[8] (2018). North Dakota U.S. Senate Election Results. [online] Available at:

Further Reading:

Astor, Maggie. “A Look at Where North Dakota’s Voter ID Controversy Stands.The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018.

Ogden, Eloise, and Minot Daily News. “Off-Reservation Tribal Members from ND Reservation File Lawsuit…” Grand Forks Herald, 6 Nov. 2018.

Service, John Hageman Forum News. “As Booker Slams ND Voter ID Law in Standing Rock Appearance, State Official Predicts Record Native American Turnout.Bismarck Tribune, 3 Nov. 2018.

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