Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Spirit Lake Nation, et al., v. Jaeger


At a Glance

North Dakota’s 2021 legislative map illegally dilutes Native Americans’ voting power in northern North Dakota. The Spirit Lake Nation, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and individual Native voters challenged the map under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

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By Michael Carter, NARF Staff Attorney, and Mel Neal, Legal Fellow at CLC.

North Dakota has a long and ongoing history of discrimination against Native Americans, including denying Native voters an equal voice in the state’s elections.  

Until 1922, North Dakota barred most Native people from voting. Even after North Dakota finally allowed Native...

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About this Case

The Spirit Lake Nation (Mni Wakan Oyate), Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and individual voters filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge North Dakota’s discriminatory state legislative maps. The lawsuit alleges that the state of North Dakota violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by failing to draw a majority Native legislative district containing the Spirit Lake Reservation and Turtle Mountain Reservation, which would allow citizens of the Tribal Nations to elect a candidate of their choice to two State House seats and a State Senate seat.

Ignoring the requests and testimony of the two tribal chairmen and tribal citizens, the legislature drew the Turtle Mountain Reservation and surrounding trust lands into District 9, while drawing the Spirit Lake Reservation into District 15. The legislature also packed a substantial supermajority of Turtle Mountain citizens into House Subdistrict 9A, which contains the Turtle Mountain Reservation, and cracked the remainder of the Turtle Mountain population into House Subdistrict 9B, which includes Turtle Mountain Trust Lands. Because voting in North Dakota is racially polarized, the current map prevents Native Americans from electing a candidate of choice to the State House in both District 9B and District 15.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC), Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Law Offices of Bryan Sells represent the plaintiffs in their suit. Robins Kaplan LLP represents the Spirit Lake Tribe.

On Nov. 11, 2021, North Dakota adopted new state legislative maps to account for the population changes captured by the 2020 Census. The map redraws the state’s 47 legislative districts, which are used for elections in the State Senate and House of Representatives. Each district is represented by one state senator and two members of the State House who are elected at large within the district, except for two districts that are divided into two House Subdistricts that each elect one house candidate.

Tribal Nations were largely excluded from the 2021 redistricting process in North Dakota. Even after repeated requests from tribal leaders, the North Dakota Redistricting Committee failed to hold a single meeting on tribal land. Despite the barriers to participation, Tribal Nations and individual Native voters worked to make their voices heard. After the North Dakota Legislative Redistricting Committee released the draft map that packs and cracks Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain citizens, Spirit Lake Chairman Douglas Yankton and Turtle Mountain Chairman Jamie Azure issued a joint letter to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and leaders of the State Legislature detailing their Tribal Nations’ request to be placed into a single at large legislative district and a finding that the legislature’s proposed map would likely violate Section 2 of the VRA. Both chairmen testified in support of the Tribal Nations being drawn into a single district before the Legislative Redistricting Committee. The complaint alleges that the legislature ignored the Tribes’ requests and adopted an illegal map, depriving Native voters in northern North Dakota of a second representative in the State House.

Persistent Discrimination in North Dakota

The discriminatory state legislative map is only a part of North Dakota’s long and troubled history of discrimination against Native Americans, including in voting. North Dakota expressly barred most Native people from voting until 1922. Even after Native Americans officially won the right to vote in North Dakota, state and local officials continued to enact laws and policies that diminished Native political power.

During the past decade, the State Legislature enacted a series of discriminatory voter validation laws that disenfranchised Native American voters by requiring voters to present photo ID listing their street address in order to vote. These laws made voting in nontribal elections burdensome or even impossible for the many Native voters living on reservations who had not been assigned street addresses and therefore did not have the requisite ID. After challenging the law in federal court, the Spirit Lake Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and individual Native voters, represented by  CLC and NARF, obtained a court-ordered consent decree with the Secretary of State, requiring North Dakota to implement certain safeguards for voters without qualifying identification.

The effects of the state’s discriminatory voting laws and practices are reflected the in lack of Native representation in the State Legislature. Even though Native people make up approximately 7% of the state’s population according to the 2020 U.S. Census, only 3 of the North Dakota’s 141 state legislators are tribal citizens — accounting for only 2% of the Legislative Assembly.

Native American voters have a right to maps that will allow them to make their voiced heard and have an equal say in the future of North Dakota. If left unchallenged, the new map would continue to dilute Native American voting power in violation of the VRA.

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