Friday, September 22, 2023
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County Can’t Close Polling Places on N.D. Reservation

(CN) - A federal judge in North Dakota blocked Benson County from closing two of three voting stations on or near the Spirit Lake Reservation, a move that would have saved the county $12,000 but likely would have prevented some tribe members from voting.

"While $12,000 is undoubtedly a significant sum of money for Benson County, the potential harm that would be suffered by Plaintiffs if they were deprived of their constitutional right to vote outweighs any monetary harm which would fall upon Benson County," wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in Fargo.

Last December, county officials decided to close seven of eight voting locations in order to implement a more cost-effective mail-in voting process. Two of the voting spots were located on the Spirit Lake Reservation, where the poverty rate is higher than surrounding areas.

The Spirit Lake Tribe and Myra Pearson filed suit to keep three voting locations on or near the reservation open, claiming county officials violated their rights under the Voting Rights Act, the Indian Citizenship Act, and the 14th and 15th Amendments.

They argued that nearly half the tribe lacked transportation to the sole remaining polling place in Minnewauken, and that several members never received their mail-in ballots because they are essentially transient, while others did not trust that their mail-in votes would be counted.

The chief judge agreed that the reservation closures appeared to disproportionately affect the tribe, despite the fact that the decision was based on money, not intentional discrimination.

He ordered the county to keep the locations in Warwick and Fort Totten open.

"While a trial on the merits is the only method of fully determining the disparate impact, if any, Native Americans would suffer as a result of the closing disputed voting places, the unfortunate reality is that Election Day is less than two weeks away and the Court does not have the luxury of conducting a trial on the merits at this late hour," he wrote. "Under these circumstances the decision of the Court is plain: the County must accommodate the voting concerns of the Tribe."

He noted that the tribe has offered to provide poll workers and funding to offset the county's costs of keeping the polling places open.

Because the third disputed polling place, in Oberon, is not actually on the reservation, Erickson said the county could close it along with the other non-reservation voting spots.

"The Court sees little reason to treat the Oberon voting place any differently than the other four voting places not located on the reservation which have been closed," he wrote.

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