Have Republicans Rallied the Native Vote?

Native voters in North and South Dakota embrace the value of their vote since Standing Rock.
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Matene Strikes First, of the Dakota and Ojibwe nations, speaks to the crowd during a rally to protest President Donald Trump's Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh at Civic Center Park on August 26, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

With midterms just weeks away, tribes are mobilizing voters in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld a 2017 North Dakota Voter ID law requiring residents to provide identification with a current street address to vote.

The law disproportionately affects Native voters in North Dakota and could curtail the Native vote in a state where Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is trailing Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. Native voters typically vote for Democrats.

Tribes are now pushing back against disenfranchisement of Native voters by Republican leadership in North Dakota, but it remains to be seen if that will save Heitkamp’s seat.

“Whatever happens in the Dakotas can be a prediction of what the country could look like,” Allison Renville, a citizen of the Sisseton Sioux Tribe, said. “The bigger question is, how can we see each other as human beings who are vulnerable to poverty and suffering instead of in partisan ways?”

Her reservation is called “the Triangle” locally because of its shape. Like the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on the other side of the state, it straddles both North and South Dakota.

Approximately 18,000 North Dakota residents also lack supplemental documentation sufficient to permit them to vote without a qualifying ID.

Tribes in North and South Dakota have been put on high alert by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a voter identification law in North Dakota. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the confusion and difficulty this sudden change in requirements to vote poses to one in five North Dakota voters. Even as recently as the primary, voters were allowed to vote with IDs using post office box addresses in place of street addresses.

“If the Eighth Circuit’s stay is not vacated, the risk of disfranchisement is large,” wrote Justice Ginsberg in her dissent. “The Eighth Circuit observed that voters have a month to ‘adapt’ to the new regime. But that observation overlooks specific fact-findings by the District Court: (1) 70,000 North Dakota residents—almost 20 percent of the turnout in a regular quadrennial election—lack a qualifying ID; and (2) approximately 18,000 North Dakota residents also lack supplemental documentation sufficient to permit them to vote without a qualifying ID. The law will disproportionately impact Native American voters.” That’s because many reservations do not use street addresses, and Native residents often use P.O. boxes and have tribal identification that does not include an address.

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Native leaders have suggested a number of fixes for rural reservation residents to obtain a street address. One is for individuals to call the local 911 county coordinator and receive or confirm a street address for free. This is the address 911 emergency vehicles use to find rural homes. Authorities claim to have assigned addresses to most rural homes in the state, though residents may not be aware of those addresses. But instead of tribes requesting 911 addresses in bulk for all their residents, individuals have to figure out which of 53 coordinators they can call. 

The Native American Rights Fund, the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, announced on October 18 it is working with four North Dakota tribes: the Spirit Lake Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and the Three Affiliated Tribes, also known as MHA Nation. All of these tribes are issuing new tribal IDs, free of charge, with street addresses.

Assistance is also coming to North Dakota tribes from South Dakota tribes, namely from Four Directions, a Native voting advocacy group from the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. According to reporting by The Bismarck Tribune, Four Directions is helping North Dakota tribes implement a strategy of posting tribal staff at every reservation polling place to issue letters with proof of address to anyone who needs them. 

And the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has issued this how-to vote chart and shared it on its Facebook page:

In the Dakotas, Native voters vote solidly for Democratic candidates. And this is true across the country. In every red state, the counties with reservation land are usually the blue holdouts.

Despite the role of Native American voters in her election, the incumbent Democrat Heitkamp did not actively support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its demands for meaningful consultation on the building of the Dakota Access pipeline in the high-profile standoff between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Texas-based pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners. She also characterized the protesters, who preferred to be called “water protectors,” as violent and called for more funding of law enforcement. In 2015, the Heitkamp voted to pass the Keystone XL pipeline bill that tribes also opposed.

“I think she was caught in the middle,” former Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault told the Associated Press in May. “But when her hand was forced, she chose the pipeline. She always said she supported Indian Country, but when all of Indian Country from across the nation was at Standing Rock—she didn’t show up.”

Even as Heitkamp tours Native American communities, a few tribal members still remember on social media her lack of support of tribal concerns on DAPL. Yet, others faced with the choice of Republican Kevin Cramer are rallying to her cause. Her recent co-sponsorship of the Native American Voting Rights Act in the Senate and her support for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act are often cited.

The recent organizing to mobilize the Native vote in North Dakota is the latest example of a push to energize the Native vote in reservations and communities throughout Indian Country.

“When I ran in 2016 was the first time a lot of my family voted,” said Ruth Buffalo, a citizen of the MHA Nation running for District 27 of the North Dakota House of Representatives. “Seeing me run broke down those barriers to voting. They realized it’s not as hard as you think it is.”

Indeed, in 2018 more Native American candidates, especially women, are running than ever before—tracked by #SheRepresents on Twitter. Across the country, 54 Native women candidates are running at the county, state, and federal level.

It remains to be seen if seeing Native Americans run for office will bring more Native voters to the polls.

It’s not known if seeing Native Americans run for office, both at the local and in high profile national campaigns, will bring more Native voters to the polls. If it does, it could challenge Republicans in red states where a largely blue Native vote could eliminate the margins of victory, as was the case in North Dakota in 2012.

Since her support of the DAPL, Heitkamp has taken other steps that could regain support from Native constituents. Recently, she has championed Savanna's Act, which addresses the issue of the estimated 2,500 of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women who are missing—or their murders uninvestigated—in Canada and the United States.

Heitkamp’s Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer demonized Dakota Access pipeline protesters at Standing Rock in 2016, calling them “lawless mobs” engaged in a “full-fledged riot” aided by “bad actors, celebrities, and political extremists.” And in the first debate between the two candidates on October 18, Cramer derisively called protest against Kavanaugh’s nomination “mob rule.” Heitkamp voted against confirming the Supreme Court justice.

Buffalo, going door to door, talking to voters in Fargo, North Dakota, recently discussed the Standing Rock protests with a married couple, both white voters, in her district. Buffalo said the man expressed distress over seeing “Water Is Life,” the slogan of water protectors at Standing Rock, painted on a building as he drove through the town of Cannonball near the site of the former protest camp. The woman said she was opposed to abortion and wondered how they could protect anyone at all if they can’t protect the most vulnerable—meaning the unborn. Buffalo said, “The most vulnerable are Native Americans, and all they want is clean water and a clean place for their children to grow up in.”

She hopes conversations like this can help heal a divided state. “It’s time for North Dakota to catch up. We like our wholesome rural communities, but we need to grow together and view each other as human beings.”