VICTORY: Court Blocks North Dakota Voting Map that Discriminated Against Native Voters
Fargo, ND – Today, a federal judge ruled that North Dakota’s legislative maps discriminate against Native voters by denying them an equal voice in our democracy. The ruling comes after the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the Spirit Lake Tribe, and individual Native voters challenged the maps under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) for illegally diluting the Native vote.
“Working together, tribes can accomplish anything. This decision shows the impact tribal nations can make when they unite to stop the cycle of exclusion and underrepresentation that has for generations prevented too many Native people from voting and from having a say in state-level decision-making,” said Turtle Mountain Chippewa Chair Jamie Azure.
Spirit Lake Tribal Chair Lonna J. Street agreed. “Native people have the right to vote in North Dakota and the Spirit Lake Tribe will defend that right each election if we must, however, this case could have been avoided if the people elected to positions of power abided by the laws that protect voters,” said Chair Street.
The 2020 Census showed the number of Native voters in North Dakota grew to 5.9% of the state’s voting age population, yet the state legislature adopted a legislative district map that reduced the number of candidates Native voters could elect in northeast North Dakota. The court ruled that the plan diluted Native voting strength by drawing map boundaries that cracked apart communities near the Spirit Lake Reservation and packed voters near the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation into a separate subdistrict.
In the first election using the map that the court has today invalidated, Native voters could only elect two of the 141 state legislators. For the first time since 1991, no Native American serves in the North Dakota State Senate as a result of map passed by the legislature.
The case, Turtle Mountain Chippewa et al v. Michael Howe, was the first racial vote dilution case tried after the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Section 2 of the VRA in Allen v. Milligan in June. Campaign Legal Center (CLC), Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and The Law Office of Bryan L. Sells represent the plaintiffs in their suit. Tim Purdon of Robins Kaplan LLP represents the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Spirit Lake Tribe.
“We applaud the Court’s ruling, which helps ensure North Dakota’s Native voters can make their voices heard and elect leaders who will best serve their communities,” said Mark Gaber, senior director of redistricting at Campaign Legal Center. “North Dakota’s Native voters, who deserve an equal voice in our democracy, will no longer have their voices drowned out by unfair maps.”
“Native people in North Dakota have had to fight for generations for the state to honor their right to vote, and with this decision, Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain voters now gain what they have always asked for — the fair opportunity for equal representation that the Voting Rights Act requires,” said NARF Staff Attorney Michael Carter.
The judge found that the 2021 North Dakota legislative map deprives "Native American voters of an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice, in violation of Section 2 of the VRA." The findings of fact issued by the court noted "...under the 2021 redistricting plan, Native Americans hold zero seats in the Senate and two House seats. Either of the [Tribes'] proposed plans would yield one Senate seat and three House seats. While certainly not dispositive, this obvious disparity as to proportionality is further evidence of vote dilution under the totality of circumstances."
The court ordered the North Dakota Legislative Assembly to abandon the map and replace it with a VRA-compliant map before the November 2024 election. By December 22, 2023, the state must provide a map that does not violate Section 2 of the VRA. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Spirit Lake Tribes may provide expert analysis and propose any changes by January 5, 2024.
More information about the case can be found here.