Locating a house isn’t easy on the isolated and impoverished Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota, and that’s making it more difficult for residents and their counterparts on other reservations in the state to vote this election. To cast a ballot, they need identification with a provable street address — something that isn’t important to the 19,000 people who live on the remote 72-square-mile block of land where most streets have no signs. In their culture, they’ve never needed them. Tribal activist Wes Davis, 37, an official at the local community college and a lifelong reservation resident, describes where he lives this way — to the west of a gas station on the east side of town, behind the high school and across the road from another store.
“This is literally how we explain where we live here on the reservation, because that’s the way it’s been our whole lives,” Davis said. “People will understand because whenever we think of physical addresses, we think of infrastructure, or we think of pastures, or we think of families who live in a spot and we live alongside of them, those types of things. We don’t think of streets and avenues.”
The stricter voter ID rules are taking effect for the first time after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month allowed the state to require street addresses, as opposed to other addresses such as post office boxes. Now tribes are scrambling to make sure everyone on the reservation can vote in the November election, which includes a race that could help determine control of the U.S. Senate.
The skirmish over voter access isn’t limited to North Dakota. Voters in at least eight states will face more stringent laws than they did in the last federal election, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. That includes Georgia, where alleged suppression of minority and women voters has become an issue in a heated governor’s race.
American Indians in North Dakota face a unique situation because the state is the only one in the nation without voter registration, meaning they have never really needed a street address to vote.