Richard Brakebill voted in nearly every election of his adult life, a point of pride that began with his return from the Navy more than three decades ago. But in November 2014, when Brakebill drove through the open farmland of the North Dakota countryside to the Rolla City Hall, a poll worker refused to let him vote.
Elvis Norquay was another reliable presence at the polls, despite being a Vietnam War veteran who bounced between homeless shelters for years. Norquay often hitched a ride into town to vote at the local Knights of Columbus Hall, where poll workers would vouch for him—that is, until November 2014, when he, too, was turned away.
Lucille Vivier had no driver’s license, let alone a car, but she almost always found transportation to her nearby polling place. In November 2014, Vivier was denied a ballot, even though one of the poll workers was someone she knew since she was 5-years-old.
Officially, these voters lost out at the polls four years ago, because they failed to show identification, as required by a new state law at the time. But that was not the only thing the would-be voters have in common: Each is Native American, and each hails from one of the most heavily Democratic counties in this deep-red state.
Over the last six years, Republicans in North Dakota adopted a flurry of legislation that effectively revoked the right to vote for thousands of Native Americans and other Democratic voters, according to an investigation of court records, internal emails among state officials, as well as interviews with voters and lawmakers on both sides of the issue.
Six Native American plaintiffs challenged North Dakota’s law in court, including Brakebill, Norquay, and Vivier. A federal district-court judge sided with the plaintiffs in challenges to two different iterations of the state’s voter-ID laws, finding the laws’ requirements to be disproportionately burdensome on Native American voters.
In his most recent ruling in April, Judge Daniel Hovland issued an injunction broadening the range of acceptable ID for voters, calling voting a “most cherished right” for “thousands of Native Americans who currently lack a qualifying ID and cannot obtain one.”
“No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote,” Hovland wrote.
In light of the ruling, Native Americans in North Dakota will now be able to present additional types of ID to vote or prove their identity, including the federal tribal ID that many Native Americans already possess. The ruling also allows them to use more readily accessible tribal documents to supplement their IDs if they need to prove their identity or address. This will make it considerably easier for Native Americans, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates, to cast their ballots.