New laws and policies in North Dakota and Georgia threaten to disenfranchise large numbers of Native American and Black voters in November—but with three weeks left until election day, activists are standing steadfast in the battle for the ballot.
In Georgia, a civil rights group is suing Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp and Gwinnett County for allegedly discarding absentee ballots from Black voters in disproportionately high numbers. The action comes in the wake of Kemp’s “No Match, No Vote” policy that allows the state to disqualify any voter registration application that does not match previous records for a voter without exception—including small variations such as initials in place of a full middle name or the addition of a hyphen in a last name.
Kemp’s policy alone threatens the power of Black voters in the state, unfairly stacking the odds against his opponent, Stacey Abrams, who would be the first-ever Black female governor elected in U.S. history. 53,000 voter applications are currently suspended in Georgia because of Kemp’s new policy—70 percent of which are from Black voters. But Gwinnett county has an unusually high rejection rate for absentee ballots this year—and whereas 2.5 percent of white voters have faced rejections, eight percent of Black voters and almost 15 percent of Asian voters have seen the same thus far.
The Coalition for Good Governance has filed a suit on behalf of the voters whose ballots have been rejected. The suit calls for an immediate pause to the discarding of ballots and the opportunity for voters whose ballots are rejected to recast their vote or fix any errors leading them to be rejected at the polls. Activists in the state are also calling for an alert system that notifies voters if their ballot is about to be tossed, giving them an opportunity to remedy any errors as well. Some Spanish-speaking voters are struggling to complete confusing bilingual ballots in the state, many of which merge English and Spanish and therefore make any instructions and information hard to follow.
In North Dakota, a law affirmed this month by the Supreme Court has allowed lawmakers to successfully disenfranchise most Native American voters in the state—another attack on a female candidate, this time Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who was elected in a narrow margin in 2012 thanks in large part to Native voters.
Under the new law, voters must provide both proof of identification and proof of a residential address to register—even though Native Americans are more likely to use Post Office Boxes because they are not assigned traditional U.S. mailing addresses by the government. Residents can obtain proof of a physical address by calling into their county administrator, but the only person in Sioux County who can help is the sheriff—and playing both of these roles means that he is away from his desk often and is not there to help people identify their residential addresses. Voter registration in North Dakota ends on Monday.
Tribal leaders are doing all they can to circumvent the new voter suppression law and empower Native voters in its wake. The Turtle Mountain Tribe is printing free IDs for anyone who needs one to vote—but they cannot keep up with the high demand since so many people need assistance. To help them get people registered and headed to the polls, the Native American Rights Fund is asking for donations. According to press statements, tribal leaders are also working to ensure that polling places on North Dakota reservations come election day will be equipped with stations where voters can obtain tribal voting letters, thus enabling them to cast ballots.
“[This law has] already unified the tribes in North Dakota. Now we’re working together,” Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told NPR. “We are members of this U.S. government, and we are not going to let you keep us down. We’re going to figure out a way to to go over the barriers that are put in front of us.”
Lawmakers in various states are erecting barriers to voting specifically to discourage key blocs—including young people, people of color, women, the elderly and the disabled—from even trying to make their voices heard. Azure, however, thinks that plan is about to backfire.
“This unified movement moving forward with the tribes?” he added. “That’s going to jump our percentages up, with that Native vote.”