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As settlement talks near, Heitkamp says voter ID laws 'clearly target' Native Americans, college students

Will Gardner, with his wife, Laura, accepts the party's endorsement for Secretary of State at the April 7, 2018, convention at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 2
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is cheered on by delegates at her nomination for the United States Senate March 17, 2018, at the ND Democratic convention. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

BISMARCK — Heidi Heitkamp criticized North Dakota lawmakers this week for passing what she called unnecessary voter identification laws in the years after she was first elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, drawing a rebuke from Republicans.

In an interview Thursday, May 10, Heitkamp said the laws “clearly target” Native Americans and college students, two groups that tend to favor Democrats. She said there’s “absolutely no proof” of voter fraud in North Dakota.

“I think that this was the North Dakota Legislature taking a problem that is being alleged in another part of the country and checking a box on legislation that we didn’t need,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp’s comments came weeks before settlement talks between the state of North Dakota and a group of Native Americans who sued over its voter ID laws. She’s also in the middle of a tight re-election bout with Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, a race that could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Cramer’s campaign deferred to the state Republican Party for comment. Party Chairman Rick Berg, a former congressman who lost to Heitkamp in 2012, said North Dakota’s lack of voter registration helps make it “one of the easiest states in the country for people to be involved in voting.”

“If there are votes that aren’t legitimate, then that hurts every other voter that stepped up and made the effort to vote,” he said.

Yearslong fight

Months after Heitkamp’s narrow 2012 victory, state lawmakers eliminated the option for voters to sign an affidavit to swear their eligibility, curtailing what they said was an opportunity for voter fraud. Poll workers also were not allowed to vouch for a voter’s identity under the new law, which was supported almost exclusively by Republicans.

Two years later, lawmakers clarified which forms of ID were acceptable for voting.

“What they did is actually kick the backbone of America and democracy by denying people the right to vote because they lost an election,” said OJ Semans, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and co-executive director of the Native American voting rights, education and advocacy group Four Directions.

Seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger in 2016, arguing the new laws disenfranchised Native Americans. They said “qualified Native American voters face substantial obstacles to obtaining an acceptable form of ID,” such as higher poverty rates and long distances to drivers’ license sites.

The plaintiffs notched a victory just before the 2016 election. The Legislature then passed a new law the following year that a federal judge later loosened by striking the requirement that IDs include a current residential street address that are sometimes missing in Native American communities.

The new law doesn’t permit affidavits or poll worker vouching but instead allows voters who don’t have an ID to cast a “set aside” ballot that would be counted if they return with an ID. It also allows IDs with missing or outdated information to be supplemented with bank statements or utility bills.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the top backer of North Dakota’s latest voter ID law, dismissed suggestions of partisan motivations as “baloney.”

“It’s just making it an honest election,” he said. “The integrity of the ballot box is pretty important.”

Heitkamp said the number of votes cast in 2012 using affidavits in the western part of the state, where she fared worse, shows their elimination “doesn’t necessarily cut just in one way.” She said “we all lose when people’s right to vote is wrongly restricted,” regardless of political affiliation.

Berg said issues with North Dakota’s voting system had been identified well before the 2012 election, when he lost to Heitkamp by less than 3,000 votes and more than 10,500 affidavits were used. He said people pressured him to challenge the outcome at the time.

“I believe in our voting system,” he said, before adding that it’s “important for all of us to make sure that everyone can trust and believe that our voting system is fair.”

'Clear' evidence?

Despite arguments from Democrats like Heitkamp, Republican Secretary of State candidate Will Gardner said there’s a “huge potential” for voter fraud. He pointed to election workers’ inability to verify roughly 3,700 votes cast using affidavits during the 2016 election.

“Do I think there is fraud? Yes I do,” Gardner said. “How substantial is it? It’s hard to say.”

Gardner’s opponent, Democratic state Rep. Joshua Boschee, criticized Jaeger’s office for appealing the case while legal bills pile up.

“The Secretary of State’s Office, the Legislature, county auditors, state’s attorneys have not been able to prove voter fraud is happening,” he said. “What are we trying to fix?”

In a letter to President Donald Trump’s now-defunct “election integrity” commission last year, Jaeger said nine “suspected instances of double voting” prompted the Legislature to act after the 2012 election. He said none of the local prosecutors chose to pursue charges despite “clear” evidence.

But U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland recently admonished the state for embellishing concerns about voter fraud. A settlement conference is scheduled for May 29 in Bismarck, just two weeks before the June 12 primary election.

Cass County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said ID requirements make poll workers’ jobs easier and aren’t meant to disenfranchise voters. But he said the swirl of changes during the past few years has put a strain on election workers and left him with some questions a month before a statewide election.

Jaeger said he hopes the settlement talks produce a resolution, but “we’ll have to wait and see.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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