When North Dakota’s strict new voter-identification law went into effect for the 2016 election, people on the reservation of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians were bewildered. We used to be able to cast ballots in state, federal and tribal elections without an ID if we signed an affidavit or a poll worker vouched for us. Then the legislature passed a law requiring an ID with a residential address at the polls.
The state has a voting-eligible population of 580,000, and about 70,000 lack the right kind of ID. The law requires that these IDs have street addresses printed on them and specifically bans using a P.O. Box. This was clearly designed to target Native Americans. Most tribal IDs don’t have this information. In fact, many tribal citizens don’t have residential mailing addresses — the U.S. Postal Service does not provide residential delivery to their rural communities.
Some of my earliest memories as a kid growing up on the reservation involve going to the post office to pick up mail from our box. I could tell you exactly where I lived — to get to my grandparents' house, for example, you went halfway to Belcourt Lake and made a left at the church — but we didn’t have an official street address. Nobody did. Our reservation measures about six by 12 miles and is home to about 19,000 people. Most buildings don’t have numbers, and most streets don’t have signs. Everybody knows everybody. We’re a tightknit community and a sovereign nation. We have our own way of doing things. It seems absurd that we should have to call some county official with no connection to the tribe, hundreds of miles away, and be assigned an address by some arbitrary system, just to exercise our basic rights. After all, when members of our tribe signed up to serve in the military, the armed forces didn’t require that information.
Members of the Turtle Mountain Band were key to fighting North Dakota’s law in the courts. At the same time, our tribal council made contingency plans so that when the Supreme Court declined to intervene to protect our voting rights last month, we sprang into reaction mode. Our tribal motor vehicle department, which issues IDs, had already arranged with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get access to its database of street addresses so we could print that information on the new cards. (Members of other tribes have not been so fortunate. Some have reported that their county officials have been unavailable, or even issued incorrect addresses.) Through some finagling, we secured a new ID machine for each of our four polling sites on Election Day, to ensure that all eligible citizens can get an ID and vote when they show up. We have also waived the processing fee. For a single mother with three kids, that $15 could buy milk for a week. Our community has a nearly 15 percent poverty rate and a 59 percent unemployment rate. We don’t want people to have to make that choice.
Three generations ago, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote at the federal, state and local levels and still maintain tribal citizenship. This new law is intended to disenfranchise our population and hold us down. Ironically, it may have only served to rally the Turtle Mountain people and tribes across North Dakota. In 2016, our voter turnout was an all-time low. But a month ago, when we first opened the office to distribute free IDs to first-time applicants, hundreds of people showed up. The machine got so hot that it started to melt the cards. Then, at this week’s nonpartisan “Stand-N-Vote” rally — starring actor Mark Ruffalo and musician Billy Ray Cyrus, and with an ID machine at the ready — close to 1,400 tribal members filled the auditorium of our community college. The energy was electric.
In 2012, fewer than 3,000 votes decided the U.S. Senate race in North Dakota. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has more than 13,000 members who are eligible to vote. Unless we use it now, we may never again have that power to tip the scales. We are doing everything we can to get our citizens access to the vote. Now it’s up to us to exercise it and to protect it fiercely going forward. In the 20th century, the government imposed a numbering system on us with the aim of limiting our political power — our blood quantum. We won’t let a new one act as a barrier to our vote in this election. The Turtle Mountain Band may be a little speck 10 miles off the Canadian border, but we will make ourselves heard.
As told to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen.