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Democracy on a Roll: Judge Blocks North Dakota Voter ID Laws

"North Dakota's new voter ID laws are having and will continue to have a disproportionately negative impact on Native American citizens"

"No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote," judge writes. (Photo: Justin Grimes/flickr/cc)

Adding to a string of recent voting rights victories, a judge in North Dakota on Monday blocked the state's restrictive voter ID law, saying it disproportionately impacted Native Americans. 

The ruling (pdf) came in response to a lawsuit (pdf) filed in January on behalf of seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, who said voter ID requirements passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature in 2013 and 2015 are unconstitutional and disproportionately disenfranchise tribal communities.

As the Bismarck Tribune explains:

Before 2013, if a voter lacked an ID card but a poll worker had firsthand knowledge of the person's identity and residence, the voter was allowed to cast a ballot. The voter also could sign an affidavit attesting to his or her eligibility to vote in the precinct.

Tom Dickson, an attorney for the north-central North Dakota tribal members, said the 2013 change by the GOP-controlled Legislature amounted to having people "pay to vote." He said some tribal members can't afford the required identification, and others had to pay to get their tribal IDs updated with a valid address.

"This was blatantly discriminatory," Dickson said. "The point of these laws is to keep people from voting and suppressing the Native American vote, who generally vote Democratic in North Dakota."

In issuing a preliminary injunction against the requirements, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland wrote: "It is undisputed that the more severe conditions in which Native Americans live translates to disproportionate burdens when it comes to complying with the new voter ID laws."

He noted that "obtaining a qualifying voter ID is much easier to accomplish for people who live in urban areas, have a good income, are computer-literate, have a computer and printer, have a good car and gas money, have a flexible schedule, and understand how to navigate the state's administrative procedures."

And, citing "undisputed" statistical data, Hovland wrote that "given the disparities in living conditions, it is not surprising that North Dakota's new voter ID laws are having and will continue to have a disproportionately negative impact on Native American voting-eligible citizens."

What's more, Hovland declared, "the Defendant has produced no evidence suggesting the public's confidence in the electoral process would be undermined by excusing those voters who cannot reasonably obtain an ID from actually presenting an ID at the polls on election day."

In conclusion, the judge stated: "It is critical the State of North Dakota provide Native Americans an equal and meaningful opportunity to vote in the 2016 election. No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote."

The ACLU of North Dakota called it "a huge victory for North Dakotans."

North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger told the New York Times in an interview that the state would not appeal the decision and that less restrictive, pre-2013 rules would be in force during the November election.

The decision in North Dakota is the fourth in recent days to strike down attempts at voter suppression passed in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. Courts in North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, and Wisconsin recently issued similar rulings, leading University of California, Irvine professor Richard L. Hasen to wonder in an op-ed for the New York Times: "Has the tide against restrictive voting laws turned?"

Still, as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote on Twitter:

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