Photo credit: Website of the North Dakota Secretary of State
According to state officials, voting in North Dakota is quite literally “Easy as Pie”. Yet, despite the culinary themed niceties, my state currently enforces the most restrictive voter ID laws of any in the nation. North Dakota is the only of the fifty states without a voter registration process.
Voters here had long been permitted to sign an affidavit at the polls to verify their identity on the honor system, or to provide a utility bill or other piece of mail, as the state only required voters reside in their voting district at least thirty days prior to Election Day. Then, early in the new millennium, Voter ID laws were expanded, requiring proof state issued ID for each person wishing to cast a ballot. At the time of this piece’s publication, this requirement could be satisfied by a driver’s license, nursing home certificate, tribal identification card, or student voting certificate provided by the state’s university system.
In the 2014 election season, I chose to vote through early voting at a local hotel here in Fargo, ND. I arrived at the poll with my state issued student voting certificate, upon which I had changed my address at least thirty days prior to Election Day, a critical detail the state university system had failed to inform its students of. At the time, I was a student at North Dakota State University, and working with support from the Feminist Majority Foundation in order to increase the student vote. I was armed with all of the facts on North Dakota’s current laws and knew that I had the right to vote. Presented with my student voting certificate, four poll workers turned me away with confusion, explaining that they had no idea how to process my student voting certificate. Finally, a fifth poll worker knew what this mysterious document was, and began processing my certificate. He asked to see a photo ID, not a current requirement of the state at that time. When asking me to verify my address, he rattled off an address dissimilar to any I’ve ever had. I was accosted by a woman in line who saw my Minnesota driver’s license and claimed that I couldn’t vote if I wasn’t a “native citizen” while I was standing in the city I was born in.
Bottom line, I finally voted. But how many with student voting certificates or various forms of tribal identification would be so thoroughly educated on current voter ID laws that they would stand up to a number of adamantly confused poll workers? That night, I contacted the Cass county auditor and the North Dakota Secretary of State, who both assured me that they would be sure their poll workers were informed of student voting certificates by Election Day.
Unfortunately, the opposite appeared to be true on Election Day, as I saw and heard of hundreds of college student s in the state turned away from the polls after attempting to use their student voting certificates. At the Fargodome, the closest polling place to North Dakota State University, a large sign advertised a $5 parking fee, as high school football games were also occupying the venue. North Dakota was effectively instituting poll taxes in 2015. A portion of the voting population had been silenced.
In March of 2015, voter disenfranchisement increased even more with the passage of HB1333, which drastically limited the voting rights of thousands across the state, specifically college students and tribal members, two populations which historically vote against the current Republican supermajority in this state. The state still claims that voting in North Dakota is “Easy as Pie”, while requiring state issued photo ID or driver’s license at the voter’s current address, and blatantly denying tens of thousands in the state the right to vote. Over 60% of college students in the state are not North Dakota residents, specifically in the traditional college towns of Grand Forks and Fargo, and are now unable to vote in the state in which they attend school. I am one of them.
The state legislature is in session just once every two years, and so these strict voter ID laws cannot be challenged prior the presidential election in 2016. Faced with this dismal situation, I and others in the state, as well as national progressive groups, have started to organize legal action against the state of North Dakota, in order to challenge the current unconstitutional voter ID laws. We have no hope of propagating progressive and effective legislation in this state if only a small percentage of the population is able to vote. In meeting with various groups and people in the state in recent months, I have to come to realize the critical implications that local government has over my everyday life, and the need to change the reality of the “Old Boy’s Club” in power in North Dakota and many other states. A change in voter ID laws is necessary, but so are the education of poll workers, the instillation of a transparent voter registration process, and the work of the state government to actively encourage the public vote. When elected officials are attempting to diminish the voter population, the basis of their title as a representative of their constituents is blatantly fraudulent.