Appeals court sides with North Dakota in voter ID lawsuit

A federal appeals court has ruled North Dakota's voter identification law is constitutional despite an argument by a group of American Indians who said it unfairly burdens them

BISMARCK, N.D. -- A federal appeals court says North Dakota's voter identification requirements are constitutional, rejecting an argument by a group of American Indians who said they are a form of voter suppression.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state Wednesday, overturning a lower court ruling.

North Dakota's law requires voters to show ID with a residential street address, which American Indians have argued is not always evident on reservations. They also say many tribal members aren't aware of their address, don't have a provable one because they're homeless or stay with friends or relatives, or can't afford to get an updated ID with a street address.

Members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued the state in 2016 over the ID requirements.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland sided with the tribes later that year, agreeing to expand the proof of identity they could use and ordering elimination of the requirement that those documents include residential street addresses. He also criticized the state for its 2013 repeal of provisions that let people without valid IDs vote if someone vouched for them or if they signed an affidavit swearing they were a qualified voter.

But an appellate panel later overturned Hovland, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year sided with the state and allowed North Dakota to continue requiring street addresses, as opposed to other addresses such as post office boxes.

State officials say not requiring street addresses could lead to people voting in the wrong district and to fraud.

The appeals court opinion Wednesday said the plaintiffs have not presented evidence that the residential street requirement "imposes a substantial burden on most North Dakota voters."

But the lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund, the Campaign Legal Center and two law firms argues the system is "incomplete, contradictory and prone to error on reservations."

"Obviously, we're disappointed but not surprised" by the appeals court opinion, said Native American Rights Fund attorney Jacqueline De Leon. "We are evaluating our options and are dedicated to keep fighting."

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he was pleased the appeals court "upheld the state's position" but said the opinion may have left open the possibility arguments could continue.

In a dissent, Judge Jane Kelly agreed with the lower court and said the law "will have a particularly devastating effect on eligible Native American voters, thousands of whom will effectively lose the right to vote."

She said Hovland's conclusion "that the law likely runs afoul of the Equal Protection Clause was eminently reasonable and not an abuse of discretion."