Native American voters in North Dakota scored a major victory Thursday when North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the Spirit Lake Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and a collective of individual voters entered into a settlement protecting Native voting rights. The settlement came after enforcement of the state’s strict voter ID law sparked an outcry over the suppression of Native votes. The settlement resolves two federal lawsuits challenging North Dakota’s voter ID law.

“The voter ID law that was passed in North Dakota disenfranchised Native voters by demanding that they provide IDs with residential addresses, which are often nonexistent on Reservations where Tribes are based,”explained Ruth Hopkins, a Lakota/Dakota Sioux writer, tribal attorney, and former judge. “This settlement will allow Natives to vote with tribal IDs and also allows them to vote even if they cannot provide a residential address, essentially solving the problem that prevented Natives from voting in the last election.”  

Originally enacted in 2004, North Dakota’s voter ID law was amended in 2013 to limit what was considered a “valid form of identification.”  The updated law required voters to present a form of ID with a residential address. One study indicated that “more than 72,000 voting-eligible North Dakota citizens lacked a qualifying ID.” The voter ID was further restricted in 2015 and 2017.

“Tribal IDs are an important form of identification because sometimes it may be the only form of ID Natives have, especially those who live in poverty or are isolated on Reservations, and who may not be able to travel to DMVs to obtain IDs due to the distance or being elderly or disabled or not having transportation,” said Hopkins. “Tribes have rigorous standards for tribal IDs, so much so that they’re accepted by airports and airlines as valid. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be recognized as valid ID to vote. Not accepting them is discriminatory against tribal members.”

The settlement came after the parties to the two underlying federal suits met at the North Dakota capitol last week for a mediated session to work toward terms that would become part of a court-ordered consent decree. According to the Native American Rights Fund, in addition to permitting the use of tribal IDs, the North Dakota Secretary of State and the North Dakota Department of Transportation agreed to “implement a program with tribal governments to distribute free non-driver photo IDs on every reservation statewide within 30 days of future statewide elections.” In addition, “Native American voters will have the opportunity to mark their residence on a map, a process that is commonly used by voters in other states. The burden will then shift to the state to verify the residential street addresses for these voters, to provide that information to the voter and the tribe, and to ensure those voters’ ballots are counted.”

Former South Dakota State Senator Kevin Killer, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Kiowa, said the settlement marked a positive turn that could have ripple effects outside of the state.

“I think it’s a good thing, and definitely something that other communities with significant tribal populations should pay attention to,” he said. “[The agreement] models a working relationship with the Secretary of State and [of how to ensure] that tribal nations work government-to-government with their counterparts at the state level [toward] an understanding of what is tribal ID and how it can be used.”

The successful pushback against North Dakota’s voter ID law is yet another example of the way disenfranchised voters have long led the fight to protect voting rights. Voter ID laws are institutional barriers that restrict access to the ballot box for Black, Indigenous, people of color people across the country, and Killer argues that Tribal Nations have a unique responsibility to their citizens to defend voting rights in particular.

“Individuals of tribes rely on tribal nations to stick up for them. As Native populations are becoming more influential in these small population states it is important for everyone to pay attention to their state legislatures, and it is important for state legislators to know that their tribal citizens are engaged and a part of this process as well,” said Killer. “Moving forward it’s important that states begin to recognize they can move the dialogue further and faster in cooperation with tribes, instead of waiting for a lawsuit and spending [taxpayers’ money].”

North Dakota State Representative Ruth Buffalo agreed the settlement was good news, but said it only marks a starting point.

“It was a sweet victory but there’s still so much work to be done,” she said. “Now, [we have] to make sure that we hold the secretary of state accountable.”

Buffalo became the first Native American woman sworn into the North Dakota state legislature after defeating Randy Boehning, the author of the discriminatory 2013 voter ID law, in the 2018 election.  

“It’s a good reminder, seeing the struggle and how people really work so hard to hold our state government accountable,” Buffalo said. “Now that the settlement is going through in our favor, we then have to do our part and, and uphold our responsibility to make sure that we exercise our democracy and our right to vote.” 

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.