Heidi Heitkamp Has a Native Voter Problem

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Heidi Heitkamp’s road back to the Senate was never going to be simple.

A Democratic senator whose ongoing campaign against Republican Kevin Cramer is considered one of the biggest toss-ups of the 2018 midterms, Heitkamp was always going to need every vote she can get to remain in office—in 2012, she squeaked by with a winning margin of 3,000 votes. But her goal of keeping North Dakota from becoming a completely red state has been made even more difficult by a pair of issues that have cost her the loyalty of the Native American tribes populating the Peace Garden state, one of her strongest bases from six years ago.

The first wound was self-inflicted and a major misstep, one bad enough that it’s worth weighing whether she deserves to be re-elected in the first place. All throughout 2016 and 2017, Heitkamp pushed off any substantive response to the Dakota Access pipeline protests mounted by tribes from North Dakota and across the nation. As thousands of people flocked to Standing Rock to assist the Sioux tribe in fighting Energy Transfer Partners’ plan to move oil through tribal lands in the name of cutting costs, Heitkamp remained silent.


Instead of standing alongside the tribes, whose vote she courted hard in the lead-up to the 2012 election by speaking to issues of tribal sovereignty and domestic violence, Heitkamp faded to the background, ultimately refusing to use her political power during the protests. Her mealy-mouthed statement that her “interest was keeping everybody safe,” served as a lasting testament to her ineffectiveness on the pipeline issue, and it was one heard loud and clear by the Native communities that strongly supported her first campaign.

“It was really a kick in the stomach,” Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who campaigned for Heitkamp in 2012, told the Associated Press. “We rallied so hard for her, but when her hand was forced she basically sold out to big oil.”


Now, thanks to North Dakota’s revanchist, GOP-controlled state legislature, a solid chunk of those voters may not even have the chance to voice their displeasure with the senator.

As part of the nationwide trend seen in dozens of conservative state houses, North Dakota’s Republicans have spent the past couple years fighting for, and passing, stricter voter ID laws. In April 2017, North Dakota passed House Bill 1369, which requires all voters bring an ID that has their name, residential street address, and date of birth to the polls. While the legislature didn’t explicitly ban Native voters from using their tribal membership cards cards to vote, that’s been the practical implication, as the cards typically don’t contain one’s address. In North Dakota, Native American citizens are twice as likely to not have a form of identification that complies with the law, according to the Native American Rights Fund.


As the state’s voting laws have become increasingly strict, the Native American population has fought back. A February 2018 challenge by six members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa opposed the amendments to the state election statute and was even initially successful.

That was before Sept. 24, when, following the state’s appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that North Dakota residents can only vote if they show proof of their current residential address, not a mailing address. What this effectively means is that a large number of reservation Natives won’t be able to vote in the upcoming election because many only maintain P.O. Boxes for mail, as the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t go to each and every house in the rural stretches of some reservations and tribal communities. As the Associated Press reported late last month:

[U.S. District Judge Daniel] Hovland found that nearly 5,000 otherwise eligible Native Americans and nearly 65,000 other voters didn’t possess a qualifying ID. He added that nearly 49 percent of Native Americans who lacked a qualifying ID also lacked sufficient supplemental documentation, so around 2,300 would be prevented from voting.


Line up that information with the fact that in 2012, Heitkamp was backed by the three counties containing the Sioux, Benson, and Rolette by over a 4,000-vote margin; then remember that she won by just 3,000 votes.

Heitkamp certainly seems to remember how the math shook out—on Oct. 3, a week after the tribe’s legal defeat, she joined 12 other Senate Democrats and introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act, aimed at making the registration process simpler for indigenous peoples that live on tribal lands and are otherwise excluded from voting. That pairs with the Native American Rights Fund’s ongoing emergency appeal to the Supreme Court challenging the Eighth Circuit’s ruling and whether it will be applied in the November election.


Heitkamp demonstrated her usefulness in the Senate with her recent stand against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but she’s otherwise been quick to provide President Donald Trump with the votes he needs. With Native voters painfully disenfranchised by the state government and rightfully disenchanted with yet another white champion that’s sought their votes for a seat of power, not only is Heitkamp more likely to lose her spot in Washington, but a populace that was only fully included in the American democratic system during the past five decades now faces targeted attacks at the polls. Again.