Nicole Donaghy fondly remembers being in the North Dakota side of Standing Rock during the 2018 midterm election, when a 90-year-old Sioux man accompanied by his daughter made his way to the polling place to cast a vote for the very first time.
“When we asked, ‘Why didn’t you vote before?’ he said, ‘No one asked me to. No one told me I could,” said Donaghy, the executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, who was working at the polling place that day.
Today, Donaghy is worried people like the Sioux elder won’t be able to vote in the presidential election on November 3. According to data obtained by VICE News, North Dakota has 58 percent fewer in-person polling stations this year than it did for the last presidential election, 109, down from 259. It’s one of the largest drops in the country, after Maryland, Kentucky, and California.
Indigenous leaders and advocates say they’re concerned about voter suppression efforts that will affect the 31,000 eligible Native American voters in North Dakota. Across the U.S., 5 million eligible Indigenous voters typically lean Democrat and play a huge role in swing states and rural ones.
North Dakota is staunchly Republican: Former President Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic candidate to win over the state, in 1964, and polls estimate a sweeping victory for President Donald Trump this year. And while Native Americans make up about 5 percent of North Dakota’s population, they were instrumental in former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s narrow election victory in 2012.
“I’ve never, ever seen a situation where polling places are reduced and there is a positive impact on voting; I’ve never seen that,” Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation Tribal Chairman Mark Fox told VICE News.
Fox lives in Parshall, North Dakota, located in the 980,000-acre Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, also known as Fort Berthold reservation. He said Parshall had an in-person voting spot until this year, but the county in charge, Mountrail, decreased the number of polling stations from nine in 2016 to two this year.
Now, Parshall residents have to drive either 35 miles southeast or 20 miles west to get to the nearest polling station on Election Day, Fox said.
“A lot of our people struggle; a lot of people don't have working cars—you can’t walk to these places. People have to leave their job or take a break from homeschooling kids. The distance is a deterrence,” Fox said.
Several sources told VICE News distance from in-person voting centers isn’t the only barrier. Voting by mail or early drop-off boxes are also more difficult for Indigenous communities to access because mailboxes, post offices, and drop boxes are often far away and the steps are complicated. To vote by mail in North Dakota, for example, residents need to apply first, collect their ballot in the mail, then send their ballot back in a timely fashion, so that it’s postmarked by November 2 at the latest.
The only Indigenous woman sitting in North Dakota’s House of Representatives, Ruth Buffalo, told VICE News that people shouldn’t assume Native American communities all face the same hurdles—each tribe is different. But she said voting barriers exist in most tribes.
The pandemic is also preventing people from helping others get to the polls. Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation member Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase said she’s driven elders who live farther away to vote in the past but won’t this year; piling too many people in a car will put everyone at risk of catching COVID-19. Virus cases are surging in North Dakota, with the youngest death reported in Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
Yellow Bird-Chase’s aunt also died of the virus this month. She said elders—the most knowledgeable voters in the community—will be most affected. “Who is going to provide that transportation? It’s not going to happen,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “My guess is voting will be at an all-time low in Indian Country.”
Fox said he’s worried the barriers demoralize Indigenous peoples and make them feel like “their votes don’t matter.”
“Having to deal with these hurdles and impediments to be able to vote creates a sad picture about how Natives are treated in the U.S.,” Fox said.
When VICE News asked North Dakota’s secretary of state’s office why there are fewer polling stations this year, Brian Newby, the election director, said, “COVID-19 is a pretty logical and obvious cause.” He added that every county is required by law to have at least one in-person polling location, but individual counties are in charge of setting the number beyond that.
Since 2018, 42 of the state’s 53 counties have been vote-by-mail, said Donnell Preskey Hushka, the executive director of North Dakota Auditors & Treasurers Association. That means county auditors have to send eligible voters absentee ballot applications, so voters can opt to vote by mail, on top of in-person. But there are usually fewer in-person polling stations.
A few counties said they’ve recently transitioned to voting by mail, or absentee ballots, like Dunn County, which shifted in 2018. While people living in Dunn can opt to vote in one of the two voting centers that remain, for many, the nearest polling center will be more than an hour’s drive away.
Sources told VICE News mail-in voting and early ballot drop-off locations are not viable for many Native Americans.
Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has only three post offices, according to Fox. “To get to a post office in Twin Buttes and Mandaree, it’s 30 to 60 or 70 miles,” he said. Even if people are close to an early ballot drop-off spot, running around to secure a ballot isn’t feasible for everyone. Some people don’t have cars, gas money, or time to vote.
Absentee ballots “sound really great, like, ‘Vote from home—don’t worry about it!’” chairman Fox said. ”But it’s actually cumbersome and more complex than what’s put out there.”
OJ Semans, a Sicangu Oyate member and co-executive director of Four Directions, an Indigenous voter advocacy group, said postal service in Indigenous communities is also slower than in urban areas. That makes it difficult for voters to gauge when to start their absentee voting process—and risks late, spoiled ballots, he said. Plus, mail across the U.S. is also unreliable right now.
Semans said the U.S. has yet to make voting easy for Indigenous peoples. “I don’t wake up and think, ‘What am I going to do today?’ I wake up and think, ‘Who am I going to fight today?’”
Spirit Lake Nation, located in east-central North Dakota, has problems similar to those in Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. One of their post offices closed down, so people in the community have to drive 20 miles to get to the closest one, Donaghy said.
A lot of tribal residents also don't have internet access or a printer, which makes it difficult to look up information about how to vote or to download a ballot application. To get an application in person in Standing Rock, it’s a 40-mile drive to the Sioux County auditor’s office, Donaghy said, adding that mailing the application, and later, a ballot, isn’t free.
“We see [mail voting] as an attack if you're in a [Indigenous] community,” Donaghy said. “You pay your bills, get groceries, buy gas. Are you going to have $2 to pay to cast a ballot—if you can get a ballot in the first place?”
North Dakota Native Vote sends out staff to Indigenous communities, including remote ones, to educate residents about candidates, hand out absentee ballot applications, and give away stamped envelopes, so postage costs are covered.
Donaghy said she’s also asked the state to allow for ballot pickup by a third party, which would allow people to stay home, avoid COVID, and save money and time. She said she’s been sent to the secretary of state, the attorney general, and counties, but no one has said if it’s an option.
Newby, with the secretary of state’s office, said that a person can only act as an agent for up to four voters in any one election according to North Dakota state law.
Daniel McCool, a political scientist who specializes in voting rights, said ballot pickup is a reasonable option. “Some parties are opposed because they say it leads to fraud,” McCool said, adding he hasn’t seen any evidence of that.
Since the 1960s, Native Americans across the U.S. have filed about 100 court cases pushing for equitable voting access; tribal members have won or accepted settlements in more than 90% of them, McCool said. “When you win that many cases, that to me is an indication that there is a problem, that there are people who don't want Indigenous people to have an equal opportunity to access the electoral process.”
This year tribes in North Dakota won a settlement after initiating a lawsuit against restrictive voter ID requirements. State rules that Republicans cracked down on after Heitkamp’s narrow 2012 win required eligible voters to present identification with a valid street address. But many tribal residents don’t have street addresses, and said the rule amounted to them not voting.
New rules put the burden of establishing a physical address on the state.
Fox said state representatives were supposed to visit Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation to issue IDs with valid addresses ahead of the presidential election but cancelled the trip because COVID-19 is spiking. So the tribal government has its own plan: The community developed a map with a grid system, Fox explained. Community members will get an address on their tribal IDs based off the map, and can take a copy of the map with them when they vote—proof that they live in the county and are eligible to cast their vote.
“We’re hoping that will work, but I'll be straight up,” Fox said. “After six years of being chairman, I can guarantee that somewhere, somehow, some non-tribal-member poll worker is going to challenge us and say, “No, we can't accept it.’ Just watch.”
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