By Mike Moen, Prairie News Service
Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. In North Dakota, advocates are honoring their heritage by ramping up efforts to ensure Native Americans overcome voting obstacles in the 2020 election.
The race is on to help those living on reservations know what they have to do to cast their ballot. But with the pandemic ravaging North Dakota right now, that road to provide assistance has become more narrow.
Nicole Donaghy, director of North Dakota Native Vote, said they’re still encouraging tribal members to vote absentee.
But COVID is limiting activity on reservations for residents to deliver those ballots, while longstanding issues, such as internet access and postage fees haven’t gone away.
She said limited dropboxes pose another problem.
“In Standing Rock, for instance, there’s going to be only one dropbox, and that’ll be at the courthouse,” Donaghy explained. “And so, like if you live in Cannon Ball, you’ll have to drive 20 miles to get your ballot to that dropbox.”
She noted in a community on the Spirit Lake reservation, the post office has closed, creating another barrier.
Donaghy’s group sought clarification from the Secretary of State on whether they could assist with ballot collection. The response didn’t provide a clear opinion, so the group is holding off out of caution, so ballots aren’t disqualified.
The group has been training volunteers on reservations to do outreach so that tribal members are protected during the pandemic. And Donaghy said they’re placing a lot of focus on updating their website with necessary information.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, worked with North Dakota Native Vote on seeking clarification on the ballot issue.
She agreed the current statute is too vague for groups to explore the idea of collecting them. She said it underscores the need for the state to be more proactive in helping this population prepare for a crisis.
“Anything that we can do to prevent further stress on communities who are already experiencing chronic stress,” Buffalo offered.
Buffalo said the issues right before the 2020 vote are very similar to the last-minute court decision in 2018 that allowed enforcement of the state’s voter ID law.
Many say the law disenfranchises Native voters. While there was still record turnout among the Native population that year, there are lingering concerns there might be a setback given all the challenges this time.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in an Arizona case concerning ballot collection for tribes.