Native Village
Youth and Education news
November 1, 2010, Volume 3

Tribe deprived of rights
Condensed by Native Village

North Dakota:  Members of the Spirit Lake Reservation say their right to vote is being taken away. This has alarmed some state and federal policymakers.

The Benson County Commissioners oversee county lands, which includes reservation land.  The Commissioners  have decided to close three polling places in the tribe’s three-precinct vicinity. They cite the expense of operating polling places and of training and paying staff.

In response, tribal leaders offered to provide funds to recruit and train workers. They also offered tribal facilities for the county to use rent-free.

The Commission refused. They said costs would still be too high and that mailed ballots would be cheaper.

Tribal members would have to travel longer distances to vote in person -- only one polling location is available in the county. Almost half of Benson County's votes in the 2008 presidential election were cast by Native Americans.

In early October, the tribe filed suit against the board’s decision.

“Whether this is intentional discrimination or not, the bottom line is that closing polling locations located within the Spirit Lake Nation will disenfranchise American Indian voters on the reservation, and this injustice cannot stand,” said Myra Pearson, Spirit Lake Nation chairperson.

Tribal officials note that Benson Country has tried to hamper Indian voters before. He pointed to statistics from the 2000 election.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked the county to keep the polls open. He believes it's possible that Indians are being denied their rights. 

All other Indian reservations in North Dakota will have polling locations during Election Day.

Dorgan has asked U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon to review the decision with the Justice Department. He wants to take action and force the county to have a reservation polling place.

“In addition, there are other areas of the state where people will find fewer opportunities to cast their votes with fewer polling places," Dorgan said. " I believe the state should ... find ways to make it easier to vote rather than harder to vote.”

Some state officials are also concerned. The State's chairman of the Democratic-NPL Party urged the Commissioners  to open an Election Day polling place in Fort Totten, N.D. This would make voting easier for residents of the Spirit Lake Reservation.


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