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Vote By Mail for ND Primary Creates More Concerns for Native Americans

North Dakota residents will vote by mail for the June primary, but Native American groups worry that tribal members will encounter a new set of access issues. (Adobe Stock)
North Dakota residents will vote by mail for the June primary, but Native American groups worry that tribal members will encounter a new set of access issues. (Adobe Stock)
May 14, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. -- North Dakota voters will not go to the polls for the June 9 primary and will instead cast their ballots by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That leaves the state and Native American groups scrambling to ensure that tribal members can make their vote count.

Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, is working to help those who live on reservations with any access issues.

She says a big concern is the limited number of drop boxes for people to put their ballots in to be mailed out.

"For most counties that do have a reservation within their borders, they are only holding or opening one ballot drop box," she points out. "And so that could be problematic for people."

Donaghy says in some cases, someone might have to drive 30 miles to the nearest drop box. And she says depending on the size of the ballot, the postage might be too expensive for tribal members with very little money.

The new concerns about access come after the state and certain tribes reached a settlement earlier this year over enforcement of a voter ID law.

But the head of the state Indian Affairs Commission says the state is making a lot of progress in helping with access issues.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, says the commission has had constant communication with tribal leaders and the county governments about ensuring voting access for those who live on reservations. He says that includes work the commission was doing even before the recent settlement on the voter ID law.

"We worked very well with tribal leaders and their administrations on areas that need mapping," he states.

Those mapping efforts are designed to help Native Americans show where they live -- something that wasn't easy for many to do when trying to become eligible to vote under the law.

Davis says the commission is also working with the Transportation Department on providing ID machines to each reservation ahead of the June primary.

Donaghy says she hopes any access issues don't result in a major drop in turnout after her group saw higher participation among Native American voters in the 2018 midterm election.

"I'm just concerned that voter turnout will be limited because of the pandemic, because of access to resources to obtain a ballot," she states.

Her group has a section of its website dedicated to helping tribal members obtain key information about voting by mail this spring.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - ND