One of the most important battlegrounds for determining which party controls the Senate this year is one of the most sparsely populated states, North Dakota. Without a victory in North Dakota, the Democrats’ path to control of the Senate was almost impossible, and incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp lost her re-election battle there on November 6. Unfortunately, the legitimacy of the election in North Dakota is threatened by a new, politically-motivated voter ID law that requires voters to present identification with a residential address. Many of the state’s 30,000 Indigenous People, particularly those who live on reservations, don’t have residential addresses and instead use P.O. boxes, meaning they are disproportionately affected by this law. The new law has been challenged in the courts, but the Supreme Court just upheld it in early October, allowing the state to enforce it in this year’s midterm elections. SCOTUS’ ruling means that North Dakota will be voting under different rules in the general election than the primary. It also leaves little time for the thousands of North Dakotans that lack residential addresses to obtain the necessary identification.
The law is transparently intended to disenfranchise Indigenous Peoples, whose support of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp is widely recognized as crucial to her narrow victory in 2012. Supporters of the law claim that it’s necessary to prevent voter fraud, but plenty of evidence suggests that voter fraud just doesn’t exist. For example, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, found only 35 cases of voter fraud in a 15-year time period where more than 800 million ballots were cast in national elections. Moreover, supporters of the law have failed to explain how using a P.O. box as an address would ever help someone commit voter fraud. It’s clear that voter fraud is simply a cover for Republicans to disenfranchise voters that lean Democratic, avoid the will of the people, and deeply undermine democracy. The law is politically motivated because the North Dakota state legislature, which is Republican-controlled, only began debating more restrictive voter ID laws after Heitkamp was elected, and Indigenous Peoples tend to vote more Democratic than the state as a whole.
It goes without saying that North Dakota’s voter ID law is deeply immoral if it prevents even one person from voting. But since the Senate race between incumbent Heitkamp and her Republican challenger, Kevin Cramer, was so close, this law could have had a significant effect in deciding Cramer’s victory and maybe even in determining continued Republican control of the Senate. There is evidence to suggest that the law may prevent thousands of people from voting, as experts estimate that as many as 5,000 voters may lack identification with a residential address. Heitkamp won by only 3,000 votes in 2012, so this year’s Senate race could easily be decided by that margin. Additionally, court rulings over the law have happened so close to the election —a judge denied a motion to exempt counties with reservations from the law on just November 2 — that voters may be confused about whether or not they are eligible to vote and may stay home, leading to an even more depressed turnout.
Tribal leaders have responded to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the law by working nonstop to assign addresses to homes that previously didn’t have one, ensuring voters can have the required identification. Reservations have expanded their get-out-the-vote efforts. The Turtle Mountain reservation has printed so many new ID cards that its machine started to melt the cards. Of course, it is disgraceful that tribes have been forced to expend so much time, money, and energy to ensure that their communities simply have the right to vote. But many tribal leaders have described their communities as energized and motivated to vote, a small sign of hope that this malicious law will have less of its intended effect.
Sadly, it’s too late to change voter ID laws in North Dakota in time for the 2018 midterm election on November 6. However, Republicans will learn that maintaining a tenuous hold on power by denying people the right to vote will not work because people will see through their attempts to disenfranchise voters and vote them out of office, and newly elected leaders will follow the model of states that have made it easier to vote. Supporters of voter ID laws may claim that they are preventing voter fraud, but the integrity of our elections will really be ensured by making voting seamless and accessible to everyone.