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After new voter ID law, Native American group concerned over precinct boundaries

The group Four Directions says they want to ensure every election ballot will count, particularly after a new voter ID requirement went into effect.
Image: Terrell Elk votes for the first time by delivering his absentee ballot for the 2018 mid-term election to the Sioux County Auditor's office on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates
Terrell Elk, 18, votes for the first time by delivering his absentee ballot for the 2018 midterm election to the Sioux County Auditor's office on the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, N.D.Dan Koeck / Reuters

In North Dakota, where a new voter ID requirement has spurred Native American voter rights group to ensure every election ballot will count, there's another pressing concern: which precinct maps to trust.

In an effort to obtain the most reliable maps, the Native American voting rights group Four Directions sent a letter Wednesday asking Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who oversees statewide elections, to verify where the precinct lines are drawn in Sioux County. The county is home to about 3,000 people who live in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and are eligible to vote; so far, more than 200 absentee ballots from there have been filled out and returned, the group said.

That number already outpaces the most recent statewide elections, when more than 120 absentee ballots were returned in Sioux County in 2016 and 59 were returned in 2014, election results show.

According to the state, there are currently six precincts in Sioux County, boundaries that went into effect with the 2012 election. In the 2010 election, a 2010 Census map shows seven precincts, although the Sioux County auditor said there were actually eight at the time.

OJ Semans, the co-executive director of Four Directions, said he's wary because while the state and county verify the six precincts, the group has not been provided any "legal descriptions or any memoranda adopted by official action" to support how those precincts were mapped by the county auditor.

"The Auditor has told us she has no such documents and your office has told us that you have no such documents," Semans wrote to Jaeger.

Jaeger referred him to "appropriate county officials" because the state "has no jurisdictional oversight."

Four Directions said it did receive photocopied maps from Sioux County Auditor Barbara Hettich showing precincts that were hand-drawn. "If you've ever seen anything unofficial, it looks like that," Semans said Friday.

Hettich said that the county does not have the capability to use maps that aren't hand-drawn, but invited residents to verify their precincts at the auditor's office.

"We have maps on the wall and they can see," she said.

Semans said his group just wants peace of mind that a person is voting in the correct place or an absentee ballot will not have to be tossed because they were in the wrong precinct caused by boundary discrepancies.

Voting rights groups have gotten mixed messages from local election officials on other issues as well, including what color pen people who fill out absentee ballots must use. (The state has confirmed that both black and blue are acceptable.)

The number is part of a wider voter outreach effort that has gained national attention and is critical in a state where incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012. Native Americans, who largely vote Democratic, helped to tip that race in her favor. Recent polls, however, have given Heitkamp's GOP challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a double-digit lead — and his win would help Republicans to cement their slim majority in the Senate.

This election comes amid a change early last month in the state's voter ID law requiring residents to have a street address on their state-issued IDs. Residents who live on tribal reservations are allowed to use their federally recognized tribal IDs to vote — but many Native Americans have post office boxes, not street addresses, listed on them.

That has forced potentially 5,000 people without qualifying IDs to get new ones in time for Tuesday's election. Voter rights groups have been scrambling to help tribal citizens figure out their street addresses — in some cases a haphazard process — and the tribes have been offering IDs for free through Election Day.

At least 2,000 people have gotten new IDs since the law was changed, according to tribal officials across North Dakota.

On Thursday, a district court judge denied a last-minute emergency request by the Spirit Lake Tribe to put a halt to the street address requirement.