BISMARCK - An attorney challenging North Dakota's voter ID law welcomed a federal judge's ruling Wednesday, April 4, that expands Native Americans' options at the polls but eliminates voter affidavits.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland's Tuesday order came almost two months before the statewide primary election, a rapidly approaching event that prompted the state to ask for an expedited review of the case. Seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa first challenged the state's voter ID law more than two years ago and notched a victory just before the 2016 election that led to last year's legislative changes.
While declining to invalidate all of the new law, Hovland imposed several restrictions on it. His order prevents the state from mandating that IDs include a "current residential street address" and expands the valid forms of ID to include more tribal documents.
Hovland said the state "has acknowledged that Native American communities often lack residential street addresses," creating barriers for voters under the law. The Native American Rights Fund, which represents the plaintiffs, said P.O. boxes are "prevalent" in Native American communities.
The order also requires the secretary of state's office to clarify a section of the new law allowing voters to prove their identity after their ballot is "set aside." The new law, sponsored by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Doug Burgum last year, allows voters who don't bring an ID to the polls to mark a ballot that's set aside until they provide identification.
Proponents of last year's legislation called it an effort to protect the integrity of North Dakota elections. But Hovland said "the public interest in protecting the most cherished right to vote for thousands of Native Americans who currently lack a qualifying ID and cannot obtain one, outweighs the purported interest and arguments of the state."
"No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote," he added.
North Dakota is the only state without voter registration.
The order means North Dakota voters won't be able to use affidavits to swear to their eligibility at the polls, however. The Legislature eliminated that option in 2013 but Hovland reinstated it just before the 2016 election.
More than 16,000 ballots were cast using affidavits in that election, and it was "not possible to verify the qualifications" of almost 3,700 voters, Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office said.
Hovland lifted his 2016 order Tuesday, which Jaeger called a "significant step toward maintaining the integrity of the election process."
The state filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, but Jaeger, a Republican, described it as a procedural step.
Tom Dickson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called Hovland's ruling a "common-sense decision." He said the voter ID law reflected a nationwide effort to suppress Democratic votes, which Jaeger disputed.
"North Dakota is committed to encouraging every eligible voter to cast a ballot, and to assuring that every vote cast is a legitimate one, and we are confident our law does that," the Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement.