FARGO, ND – A trial contesting the legality of new North Dakota legislative districts has begun in the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota (Eastern Division). To challenge the new map’s compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the Spirit Lake Tribe, and Native American voters Wesley Davis, Zachery S. King, and Collette Brown brought a lawsuit against the North Dakota Secretary of State.
In the case, Turtle Mountain Chippewa et al v. Michael Howe, the plaintiffs allege that the North Dakota legislature drew legislative districts that dilute the Native vote. For years, voters on and around the Turtle Mountain reservation have been able to elect three representatives of their choice to the state legislature. Since the last census, the state’s Native population has increased. However, the redrawn districts reduced their number of representatives of choice from three down to one. The redrawn districts divide voters on and near the Spirit Lake Tribe’s reservation into another legislative district that prevents Native votes from affecting the outcome of any election. The first election relying on the new map was in 2022. Because of the newly drawn districts, Native voters in North Dakota for the first time since 1991 were not able to elect a Native American to the State Senate.
A brief for the lawsuit submitted by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the Law Office of Bryan L. Sells, LLC, and Robins Kaplan LLP on behalf of the tribes and Native voter plaintiffs explained: “The discriminatory effects of the 2021 Redistricting Plan interact with social and historical conditions in North Dakota to create an unequal opportunity for Native American voters to elect their preferred candidates. This includes North Dakota’s well-established history of official discrimination against Native Americans, including discrimination in the electoral process, as well as the wide-ranging socioeconomic disparities between Native American and white citizens in North Dakota.”
For years, North Dakota tribes and voters have advocated to prevent the denial of their right under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Spirit Lake Tribe was a plaintiff alongside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Brakebill v. Jaeger consolidated lawsuit filed to address a restrictive voter ID law enacted in North Dakota in 2013. The 2020 settlement of the case prevented North Dakota from rejecting tribal government-issued ID as the form of government-issued ID required to register to vote in the state.
The vote of Spirit Lake tribal members was also being unlawfully diluted in Benson County. In Spirit Lake Tribe v. Benson County, the Spirit Lake Tribe successfully achieved the dismantling of an already previously outlawed at-large election system that prevented Native voters from electing candidates of choice to the County Commission.
In the still-pending Walen v. Burgum lawsuit, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation intervened to keep a new subdistrict that allows its tribal members a chance to elect state representation.
“Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ability of Native American and other voters to enforce their right to vote and to fair representation in the Allen v. Milligan ruling,” said Michael Carter, NARF Staff Attorney. “In this trial in Fargo, tribal governments and Native voters seek to enforce those rights in North Dakota.”