OJ Semans has been driving nearly a thousand miles through North Dakota Indian Country to mobilize voters and troubleshoot voting hurdles in the final days before the 2018 midterm elections. But he might not have been here without a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month on a state law that threatens voting access for thousands of Native Americans in the state.
Semans thinks the law — which requires voters to present identification that displays a street address and disproportionately affects Native Americans on reservations, where street addresses are not common — could actually have a mobilizing effect, encouraging more Native Americans to try to vote, even as advocates fear many people will still be turned away.
Semans and his wife, Barb — both enrolled members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota — have been visiting the Standing Rock, Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain reservations in North Dakota to set up phone banks, prepare maps and coordinate with tribal leaders who are scrambling to print identification cards and assign street addresses to residents who have never had one. On Tuesday, they will join more than 100 people in Turtle Mountain, knocking on doors and driving people to and from the polls to vote, aiming to turn out 3,000 people on the reservation.
“You can only push somebody so far before they have to start pushing back,” says Semans, the co-executive director of Four Directions, a group that promotes voting access for Native Americans and is currently organizing on the ground in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and North Dakota, employing upwards of 800 people for get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. “We are going to warrior up. We are going to go to the polls, and we are going to make sure North Dakota and every other state that natives are in are aware we are here.”
The law has drawn particular attention because of North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who won her 2012 election by fewer than 3,000 votes — a victory widely attributed to her support among Native Americans. But the new voter ID law is expected to affect voting access for as many as 5,000 Native Americans in the state, and Heitkamp is facing a fierce challenge from Republican Kevin Cramer, who is leading in many polls by an average of 11.4 points, according to Real Clear Politics.
Voting advocates and tribal leaders have warned that the law will systematically disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans, who already face significant barriers to voting, if they lack the necessary documents or were assigned addresses with incorrect or conflicting house numbers or zip codes. Semans is one of hundreds of activists now working furiously to combat that before Tuesday.
“It was like a slap in the face to Indian Country — not just North Dakota. That basically set the groundwork for every state that has a tribe to pass a similar law, knowing that it would be another surgical strike to remove them from the election process,” Semans says. “It was a severe blow to the spine that is the backbone of the democracy. It’s just terrible how America’s first people have to fight today in modern times just to be a part of it.”
Across the country, voter disenfranchisement has become a significant concern this year. Voters in at least nine states are facing more stringent voting laws than they did in 2016, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Those laws often disproportionately affect minority voters, including Native Americans.
Jean Schroedel, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies Native American voting rights, says North Dakota’s voter ID law is just the “latest iteration” of the “hurdles being placed in front of Native Americans trying to exercise their basic citizenship rights.”
“People are angry,” she says. “The Dakota Access Pipeline and the protest there had a tremendous energizing, mobilizing effect, particularly among young native people. And this is just a continuation.”
In a column for the Washington Post, Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said after an all-time low voter turnout in 2016, hundreds of people on the reservation have showed up to get free ID cards in the past month. “The machine got so hot that it started to melt the cards,” he wrote.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of members of the Spirit Lake Tribe called the law “plainly unconstitutional” and requested emergency relief “to prevent the potential for unchecked disenfranchisement on November 6.”
“The Defendant has assured this Court, the Eighth Circuit, and the Supreme Court that it could fairly administer this law. The facts on the ground, which are rapidly developing and worsening by the day, show otherwise,” the lawsuit stated. “Voters whose state-issued or tribal IDs list what they know to be their current residential address have had their absentee ballots rejected as having ‘invalid’ addresses. This problem threatens hundreds if not thousands more on Election Day.”
But the request was denied Thursday by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Daniel Hovland because of the potential “confusion and chaos” it could cause within days of an election, though he noted that the allegations “give this Court great cause for concern.”
And yet, “confusion and chaos,” is exactly what Semans and others are contending with on the ground. “If this was a battleship, we’re basically doing repairs on a daily basis,” he says.
In Turtle Mountain, he is working closely with a group of high school and college students, who are crafting a plan to meet the goal of turning out 3,000 voters on the reservation Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of bad things that aren’t going to change about the North Dakota ID law. It’s a bad law. No matter how they tried to frame it, it’s always been about suppressing the native vote,” Semans says. “But you look at the shining light coming out of this, it’s students standing up for what their parents and grandparents fought for. That’s something to be proud of.”