Until recently, North Dakota was viewed as the easiest state for citizens to exercise their voting rights. This was due to the fact that North Dakota, unlike every other state, does not require voter registration. Such a sharp deviation in policy from every other state in the nation is justified by the uniqueness of North Dakota. The state is comprised of mostly rural communities and native reservations, most of which are close-knit communities where people know one another. While voter registration may be essential in more populous states, it makes little sense for North Dakota where, in many precincts, election officials are likely to personally know each individual who casts a ballot.
North Dakota to date still does not require voter registration, so why is it no longer the easiest state in which to vote? Because of HB 1369, a voter ID law the North Dakota state legislature passed in early 2017. This law does not require registration; however, it does require each voter to present a valid photo ID to cast a ballot. The law has proven particularly problematic because it further requires that the ID list a current residential street address, and expressly prohibits voting with an ID that lists a P.O. box address.
Although voter ID laws are the subject of criticism generally, HB 1369 is particularly problematic for North Dakota. Unlike most states, a large population of North Dakota residents live on reservations and do not have a street address. Additionally, some IDs issued by tribal authorities may list a P.O. box or not list any address at all. Furthermore, many native and non-native residents alike may have difficulty obtaining the proper documentation necessary to get a valid ID. Due to the fact HB 1369 tends to impose substantial barriers to voting, it has been sharply criticized. The law was challenged in federal court where initially a federal district court issued an injunction requiring North Dakota to accept IDs with mailing addresses. However, the 8th Circuit overruled and left the law in its original form, a decision which the Supreme Court declined to overturn.
The stated goal of HB 1369, was to prevent election fraud, specifically to prevent voters using mailing addresses from voting in various precincts (although—as noted by a federal district judge—voter fraud in North Dakota is virtually non-existent). Preventing voter fraud is certainly an important state legislative objective. But could there be a way to prevent voter fraud without potentially disenfranchising thousands of citizens?
An ideal solution for North Dakota must accomplish two things: prevent fraud and ensure all eligible voters are able to cast a ballot without restriction. One promising solution may be automatic voter registration, which is a system where voters are registered by governmental authorities without any action of their own. So far about 16 states have implemented this policy, generally by registering voters whenever they come into contact with a DMV.
A system identical to those used in other states would clearly not solve anything in North Dakota. Many of those disenfranchised by the voter ID law likely will not come into contact with a DMV. However, this does not mean automatic voter registration is without potential. North Dakota is a unique state, and just like state’s current unique policy of not requiring voter registration, North Dakota should implement automatic voter registration with a unique twist tailored to the unique circumstances of the state. Given the presence of small communities and reservations, North Dakota could pass legislation designating local election officials to be responsible for automatically registering each voter in their precinct. Such a system would be impossible in most of the U.S. and may not be ideal for Fargo, but for much of North Dakota it would be extremely simple and efficient. In small rural and tribal communities, election officials, with the help of community leaders, could easily prepare a roll of all eligible voters. Before elections, officials would remove the names of the those who had passed away or otherwise become ineligible to vote, as well as add the names of every resident who will turn 18 before election day.
On election day this system would serve as a sharp prevention measure against voter fraud. Individuals would not need to present an ID, rather they could identify themselves, cast a ballot, and be checked off the list. Any individual whose name is not on the voter roll would be unable to vote.
Election integrity is important, but so is the right to vote. The current voter ID law presents a significant barrier to the voting rights of thousands of North Dakota residents. The legislature should instead consider solutions like automatic voter registration. In a state where voter fraud is nearly non-existent, it seems absurd to impose a remedial measure that has such a drastic effect on voting rights. Perhaps one should question the legislature’s motivations. Was HB 1369 really about election fraud, or could there have possibly been a partisan motivation at play?