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Native American Turnout In North Dakota Reached Unprecedented Levels In Midterms


Leading up to the midterm elections, Native American tribes in North Dakota were worried about turnout because of a strict new voter ID law. Field organizers knocked on doors ahead of election night.


NICOLE DONAGHY: We are going door to door in Porcupine tonight to make sure that everybody knows about the new voting acquirements.

SHAPIRO: That was Nicole Donaghy with Western Native Voice. It's a nonpartisan organization that works on issues affecting tribal communities. Now figures show that Native turnout in the election was unprecedented, even higher in some areas than the 2016 presidential election. And Nicole Donaghy is with us again from Bismarck, N.D. Hi there.

DONAGHY: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: People expected this law to suppress Native voter turnout. So why do you think it had the opposite effect?

DONAGHY: Well, I think that it had the opposite effect because it more so incentivized our people to want to exercise their right to vote. Nobody likes being told that they can't do something. And I - our people really came out.

SHAPIRO: The community took a lot of very specific steps to make it easier for people to vote. Tell us about some things that you think made a difference.

DONAGHY: We, one, started with voter education. We went from door to door talking to people about what this decision from the Supreme Court meant. And, two, we wanted to make sure people had access to getting their identification cards updated. And then on Election Day, three, we wanted to make sure people had rides to the polls.

SHAPIRO: You actually had machines to print out new IDs because part of the problem was that a lot of IDs for people who live on reservations don't include residential addresses, which was required under this new law.

DONAGHY: Well, the tribe has only one machine. And they have employees that need special clearance to access that database to create the new IDs. And so she was working a lot of extra hours. The machine was actually melting. I was told...

SHAPIRO: Wait, literally melting?

DONAGHY: ...In some cases that it was melting the plastics - yeah, literally melting the plastic ID cards because it was so...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DONAGHY: ...It was so overworked (laughter).


DONAGHY: So the tribe really stepped up. They waived the fee for people who wanted to update their ID cards. I mean, it could be - like, in Standing Rock, it's $5. That's a lot of money for some people.

SHAPIRO: One interesting twist is that the man who sponsored the voter ID law lost his seat in the state legislature to Ruth Buffalo, a Native woman and a Democrat. This is in the Republican-leaning Fargo area. Is that something that a lot of people in North Dakota tribes are talking about now?

DONAGHY: It is a very significant victory for the tribes of North Dakota. And Ruth, Ruth did an amazing job. She went out and canvassed roughly almost 7,000 doors on foot, knocking door to door and talking to people about the things that she cares about and hearing from the people that she will represent in this next legislative session.

SHAPIRO: The voter ID law is still in place. So what plans do you have to build on the voter turnout strategy going forward to 2020?

DONAGHY: Well, 2018 midterm election, it was just a dress rehearsal for us. We'll be prepared for 2020. We got the 17-year-old students. We updated their IDs, and they're good for four years. And so by the next election, they'll have an updated ID card.

And so we're going to stay in these communities and have people with boots on the ground so that we're not scrambling last-minute and making sure people know that their voice matters and making sure that they know that, you know, this rule is still in place and that the odds are always against us and that we need to exercise our own right to vote.

SHAPIRO: That's field organizer Nicole Donaghy of Western Native Voice, speaking with us from Bismarck, N.D. Thanks so much.

DONAGHY: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "THE FIRST DAFFODILS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.