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New complaint challenges latest North Dakota voter ID law

Voters at Holy Family Catholic Church in Grand Forks fill out their ballots early Tuesday, June 14, 2016, for the North Dakota primary election. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Attorneys representing several members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa have filed a new complaint challenging North Dakota’s latest voter ID law.

The amended complaint, filed Dec. 13, asks a federal judge to declare House Bill 1369 unconstitutional and prevent it from being implemented, arguing that it violates the national Voting Rights Act. The bill, sponsored by Republican lawmakers, was signed into law by Gov. Doug Burgum in late April.

The plaintiffs already scored a legal victory in August 2016, when U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing its voter ID law without some kind of “fail-safe” option that was eliminated by the Legislature in 2013. Voters who didn’t bring a valid identification to the polls in November 2016 were offered affidavits to swear that he or she was a qualified elector.

Seeking to protect the “integrity” of North Dakota elections, legislators passed a new law this year that doesn’t include the affidavit option but instead allows voters without an ID to cast a ballot that’s set aside until they can produce one. An ID that’s out of date could be supplemented with a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or a government-issued check or document.

IDs issued by the state Department of Transportation or a tribal government are valid under the new law. It includes options for those in “special circumstances,” such as living in a long-term care facility.

North Dakota is the only state without voter registration.

The amended complaint said the new law “maintains North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID requirements with no fail-safe mechanism” and disproportionately burdens and disenfranchises Native Americans. It lists Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a Republican and North Dakota’s chief elections official, as the sole defendant.

“Because a voter must still show a valid ID, and because the canvassing board may have discretion to deny inclusion of the vote, the provisional or set-aside ballot process is not a fail-safe mechanism for those that simply do not have an ID,” the complaint states.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the new law addressed the concerns raised in the lawsuit. He said lawmakers worked to make sure no voters would be disenfranchised.

“I’m not sure that you could ever please that group. What we think is we have a very fair bill there for the people who want to vote,” said Carlson, the bill’s primary sponsor. “You can’t go anywhere in this country, in the world, without an ID of some type.”

A federal judge has not yet ruled on the plaintiff’s motion to amend their complaint, and no hearings have been set. Tom Dickson, an attorney for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa members, said the motion was filed in light of the upcoming 2018 election cycle.

“They sort of padded the bill to placate a federal judge,” he said. “It won’t work.”

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said North Dakota will continue to offer voter affidavits until the judge rules otherwise.

Proponents of voter ID laws see them as tools to prevent voter fraud, while opponents say they’re meant to suppress minority votes. Experts say voter fraud is rare.

In a letter to President Donald Trump’s commission on “election integrity,” Jaeger said there were nine suspected cases of “double voting” during the 2012 general election in North Dakota, prompting the 2013 legislative changes that were challenged in federal court.

Jaeger said his office didn’t have an information regarding voter fraud in North Dakota before the 2012 general election. Earlier this year, the Burke County prosecutor reached a pretrial diversion agreement with a western North Dakota man charged in a rare voter fraud case.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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