Eighth Circuit Upholds North Dakota Voter ID Law

(CN) – The Eighth Circuit ruled Wednesday that a North Dakota law requiring voter identification is constitutional, vacating a statewide injunction put in place after Native American voters argued the law caused voter suppression.

The original complaint was filed by six members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who claimed the ID law was a constitutional violation and placed “excessively burdensome requirements” on Native American voters.

Under the law, North Dakota residents must present an approved form of identification before they can receive a ballot. The rule states that valid identification requires a voter’s current residential street address.

North Dakota is the only state that has no prior voter registration requirements, which allows residents to vote without any previous statement or claim in a desire to vote.

In 2013, the state enacted a law that created a list of types of identification a voter can use to obtain a ballot. That list was further limited in 2015 and once again in 2017, when the requirement was changed to a “valid form of identification,” which North Dakota Century Code defines as a driver’s license or identification card issued by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

An exception to the rule exists where a voter can still cast a ballot with a supplemental document such as a utility bill or a bank statement.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland found that nearly 5,000 otherwise eligible voting Native Americans lacked proper identification as defined by the state to vote. Of those 5,000, approximately 49% also lacked supplemental voting documentation. However, these numbers did not fully reflect individuals that may attempt to procure the required documents according to Circuit Judge Steven Colloton.

“The record is insufficient to justify enjoining the Secretary from enforcing the supplemental documents provision statewide.” Colloton wrote.  “The district court found that 48.7% of Native Americans who lack a qualifying identification also lack adequate supplemental documents, such that 2,305 Native Americans would not be able to vote in 2018 under the North Dakota statute… These findings do not detail how many voters attempted to obtain a supplemental document and were unsuccessful.”

Seal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger appealed Hovland’s ruling, claiming that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the street address requirement and that portions of the court’s injunction was unnecessary. Jaeger also claimed that because all plaintiffs in the action had residential addresses, they were not harmed by the law.

The Eighth Circuit found that Elvis Norquay, one of the six plaintiffs, presented sufficient evidence to show that he lived in a homeless apartment complex and did not have a valid form of identification as his tribal ID contained his former address. At the time, Norquay would have been unable to obtain a ballot as he lacked a valid ID or supplemental documentation.

Despite showing that one of the plaintiffs could have been affected by the ID law, the Eighth Circuit found that plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence that the residential street requirement placed a substantial burden on most North Dakota voters.

“Even assuming that some communities do not have residential street addresses, that fact does not justify a statewide injunction that prevents the Secretary from requiring a form of identification with a residential street address from the vast majority of residents who have them,” the opinion states.

Plaintiffs also argued that there is an undue financial burden placed on voters after the federal court relied on testimony of one witness who claimed she was charged a fee to obtain an ID card. The Eighth Circuit found that currently a North Dakota ID card can be obtained without paying any fees and if the state mistakenly collected a fee from one person in the past, it does not justify a statewide injunction.

Circuit Judge Jane Kelly authored a dissenting opinion where she reasoned that Hovland properly ruled in favor of plaintiffs, stating that the law places a “devastating effect” on Native American voters.

In her opinion, Kelly found that the district court was correct in concluding that the law “runs afoul of” the Equal Protection Clause and that the court’s initial ruling was reasonable.

“It should go without saying—but apparently merits repeating—that the right to vote is both ‘precious’ and ‘fundamental’ to our system of governance,” Kelly wrote. “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.”

The North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office did not respond for comment by press time.

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