BISMARCK - On the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, where the tribal chairman estimated the unemployment rate sits at 60 percent, $15 could buy a new tribal identification or help pay heating bills through a long North Dakota winter.

So amid a multi-year legal and legislative battle over North Dakota's voter ID laws, Chairman Jamie Azure signed an executive order to provide free tribal IDs for a limited time. Demand was so high, he said, the machine overheated and started melting the IDs.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"We want to take down those barriers and give everybody that opportunity to get out and voice their opinions," Azure said. "It upsets me that these barriers are put in front of our people."

The event came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up North Dakota's voter ID law. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case, who are members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, warned the decision would unfairly burden Native American voters heading into next month's pivotal midterm election.

North Dakotans will choose on Nov. 6 whether to give Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp a second term over Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in a contest that could determine which political party controls the Senate. Heitkamp, the only Democrat elected to statewide office in a reliably red state, was backed by strong Native American support in her narrow 2012 victory.

But that election also prompted state lawmakers to take up voter ID changes - officials have cited nine "suspected cases" of double voting, while Heitkamp blamed partisan motivations - that years later landed North Dakota in the highest court in the country.

The issue before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the state could require voter IDs to include a residential address rather than a mailing one, as had been the case during June's primary election. A survey cited by the plaintiffs indicated 18 percent of Native Americans lack a valid ID because of the residential street address requirement, compared to 10.9 percent of non-Natives.

And that survey found Native Americans disproportionately lack the documentation and resources needed to obtain an ID, given in part because of higher rates of poverty and less access to transportation.

The Supreme Court's decision has shed a national spotlight on North Dakota and Native voting rights.

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2020 presidential contender, said the voter ID requirements could disenfranchise "thousands" of Native Americans. And Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general under former President Barack Obama, called it "nothing more than voter suppression," an accusation that election officials and North Dakota Republicans behind the law forcefully deny.

"Our attempt was never to disenfranchise anybody," said House Majority Leader Al Carlson, the chief backer of the state's voter ID law. "From a legislative standpoint, we wanted the integrity ... in the ballots, but we also want to have anybody that wants to vote that is a legal citizen be able to identify where they live and be able to vote."

'Our voices should be heard'

During June's primary election, six voters were allowed to cast ballots using a post office box as their address due to a federal judge's order, and four of them voted in the wrong precinct because the "arbitrary" location of their P.O. box didn't match their residence, the state said in a court brief.

All 115,226 people who voted in June had a residential street address that should have been used to vote, according to the state. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said the "vast majority" of North Dakotans "have and know those addresses."

But Azure said there are "quite a few" people on the Turtle Mountain reservation who don't have a residential street address assigned to them. The issue is more prevalent in rural areas, said former Spirit Lake Chairman Russ McDonald.

In September, a federal appeals court reversed course and allowed the state to require a residential street address. The Supreme Court last week declined to vacate that order.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe issued a statement last week decrying the Supreme Court's decision and argued that "hundreds" of its members will not be able to vote. Chairman Mike Faith said there "is no good reason that a P.O. Box address is not sufficient to vote."

"This law clearly discriminates against Native Americans in North Dakota," Faith's statement added. "Our voices should be heard and they should be heard fairly at the polls just like all other Americans."

Heitkamp, who recently reintroduced  a Native voting rights bill, similarly criticized the state's actions.

"I'm not going to attribute any noble motive to what they're doing. They're clearly trying to disenfranchise Native American people," she said, arguing that her 2012 victory has "a lot to do with it."

Cramer, during a KVLY town hall last week, said "there's not another place in America where it's easier to vote than North Dakota." He noted it's the only state without voter registration.

Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office has distributed information to tribal leaders on obtaining a residential address through county 911 coordinators. Election officials also noted that voters who don’t have sufficient ID on Election Day have a week to produce one to ensure their vote is counted. IDs can be supplemented with documents like a utility bill.

Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican who has emphasized strengthening the state's relationship with tribes, defended the voter ID law.

“I signed this bill because it protects the right to vote and provides eligible citizens with multiple pathways to legally cast their ballot," he said in a statement.

A Native American voting rights group based in South Dakota has also announced plans to work with North Dakota's tribes to have officials posted at polling places who can provide letters identifying voters' residential addresses.

Silrum said he would have liked to launch a more robust voter information campaign, but the court rulings came too close to the election to make that feasible. He said the office is printing a voter ID poster in the state's newspapers and reaching out directly to tribal leaders and universities, among other efforts.

"Our wish, our desire is that everyone would be tending to this now leading up to voting and not waiting until Election Day," Silrum said.

For information on voter ID requirements and to view a memo state election officials sent to tribal leaders, click here: