BISMARCK, N.D. — Only a few dozen Native American voters appear to have been affected on Election Day by changes to North Dakota's voter identification requirements that many tribal members believed were aimed at suppressing their vote.
Advocacy groups credited an intense effort to ensure a strong Indian vote on Tuesday that included everything from offering free qualifying IDs to free rides to the polls, though it wasn't enough to influence a key U.S. Senate race. Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won her seat six years ago with the help of the Native American vote, was beaten by Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer on Tuesday in her bid for re-election.
The number of tribal votes that might end up not being counted total only in the dozens across four reservations, according to estimates from the Lakota People's Law Project, the Four Directions nonprofit and the University of Colorado's American Indian Law Clinic, all of whom had people at reservation polling sites Tuesday.
"Hard work ahead of time paid off pretty well," said Four Directions consultant Bret Healy. He added, however, that "you shouldn't have to move heaven and earth just to be able to cast a ballot."
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in October allowed the state to continue requiring street addresses on voter IDs, as opposed to addresses such as post office boxes that many Native Americans have long relied on.
Tribes issued thousands of free qualifying IDs to tribal members in the run-up to the election. Advocacy groups organized efforts to educate voters and get them to the polls. Four Directions even came up with an alternative street address mapping system for the Standing Rock Reservation that allowed at least nine people to vote.
In Rolette County, which surrounds the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation, 5,102 people voted, up 64 percent from the last midterm election. In 2014. In Sioux County, which encompasses Standing Rock, 1,464 people voted, the highest turnout in at least 20 years and more than double the 2014 turnout.
Voters without proper ID could cast "set-aside" ballots, which are not counted until the voter proves his or her eligibility. The voter has up to six days, when election results are canvassed.
Twenty-five set-aside ballots were cast in Rolette County and four in Sioux County, according to county auditors. The totals for the Fort Berthold and Spirit Lake reservations were harder to come by because they sprawl across numerous counties, but Carla Fredericks with the American Indian Law Clinic estimated it to be only in the dozens. The clinic had people on both reservations.
"The get-out-the-vote efforts in a way canceled out the suppression problem," Fredericks said.
The suppression allegation surfaced because changes to North Dakota's voter ID laws came just months after Heitkamp's win in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes with the help of Native Americans, who make up about 5 percent of North Dakota's population. The Republican-controlled Legislature said that had nothing to do with updates aimed at guarding against voter fraud.
North Dakota law has always required a street address identification, but before 2013 voters who didn't have one could sign an affidavit attesting to their eligibility. Some believe the removal of that option is an attempt to suppress the Native American vote.
"Our goal was to get as many people out to vote as possible, and we accomplished that," said William "Snuffy" Main, a board member for Four Directions.
Whether the increase in Native voting this election is sustainable in coming years is uncertain. The fact that more than 2,300 tribal members now have qualifying IDs will help, said Daniel Nelson, program director for the Lakota People's Law Project.
But this year's effort to ensure a high turnout was funded in large part by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations generated by high interest in the issue following the Supreme Court ruling, and the election also featured another high-profile U.S. Senate race involving Heitkamp.
"I think the intention the tribes have is to absolutely sustain it. It's going to take a lot of resources to be able to do that," Fredericks said. "Certainly the newsworthiness of the voter suppression issue drove some of the people to really want to come out and do whatever they had to do to be able to vote. I hope that's not the circumstance in the next election."