BISMARCK - The state of North Dakota has asked a federal judge to speed up his review in the ongoing battle over its voter identification laws as a statewide election draws closer.
In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota Friday, March 9, an attorney for the state noted that the primary election is just three months away. Moreover, absentee and mail-in ballots for that election can be submitted as early as April 27.
Deputy Solicitor General James Nicolai wrote that "timely resolution of the pending motions brought by both sides is necessary for proper planning by election officials." He asked U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland to "resolve this matter at the earliest possible time."
The motion comes more than two years after seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued Secretary of State Al Jaeger over voter ID changes the Republican-led Legislature passed in 2013 and 2015. They argued the changes, including eliminating affidavits that voters used to swear their eligibility, disenfranchised Native Americans.
Hovland in 2016 ordered the state to supply affidavits to voters who couldn't provide an ID at the polls. State lawmakers passed a new law last year that supporters said addressed the lawsuit, and the state later asked the judge to lift the order requiring it to provide a "fail-safe" option.
The new law 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 An ID that's out of date can be supplemented with documents like a current utility bill or bank statement.
North Dakota is the only state without voter registration, which the state has argued in court filings makes it "incompatible" with the use of voter affidavits. It warned of "thousands of unverifiable votes" being cast, which an attorney for the tribal members called "absurd."
Attorneys for the tribal members have argued the new law is unconstitutional and violates the national Voting Rights Act. They asked Hovland for a preliminary injunction last month to prevent the state from enforcing it without "adequate fail-safe provisions," such as affidavits.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum hopes a court ruling will give "clear guidance as to how to run the primary election in June." He said county officials have already begun election training.
"Regardless, we're going to have to conduct some additional training to make sure that the counties are aware (of) what they need ... so that they can in turn train their poll workers," Silrum said.
Cass County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said the primary election is less of an issue because fewer college students who may not have a valid ID are in town in June. He said they're preparing for the election assuming the new law will be effective and that people will be able to use voter affidavits.
"We're going to prepare to handle it either way," Montplaisir said. "It'd be nice if we had some stability."
Tom Dickson, an attorney for the tribal members, said they're "happy with an expedited schedule, too."