The author was initially turned away from a voting booth when attendants told her her Tribal ID was insufficient.

Turned Away From Voting With a Tribal ID: Why This Matters

Chelsey Luger

On posters, on the radio, on social media, essentially everywhere, the state of North Dakota distributed an advertisement reminding residents to get out and vote.  On these ads, acceptable forms of ID are listed: Tribal ID card is one.

I arrived at the voting station in Grand Forks, ND at about 11:00 AM to fill out my ballot. I handed over my Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa identification card.

The woman attending to me at the registration table looked at it, pulled out a bulky white binder and said “I don’t know what to do with this.” Being that I was in a rush to get back to my office and that she seemed irritated, I said “I have a valid driver’s license as well,” and handed that over.

But, since my address on the license was not current, she informed me that I’d have to go to the DMV and get a new license printed, or I’d have to go to the Department of Transportation website and update my address online. Another woman working the table next to her assessed the situation and agreed with her that I’d have to go that route. I was turned away.

By the time I got in my car and drove off, I thought to myself - “Wait a minute, why didn’t they take my Tribal ID?”  After all, it says *everywhere* that a Tribal ID is acceptable.

Well, I got back to my office and went online to the DOT website. I tried to update my address but since my apartment building is brand new, the address would not go through. Invalid. So, I made a long distance phone call and waited for about 20 minutes to get through to somebody who was able to manually update my address in the system.

I then returned to my local voting station. I got in line to see the same woman who helped me a few hours earlier. Even though I knew my license address was updated in the system, I was determined to get through the entire process using only my Tribal ID, because I wanted to make sure that they would actually allow it.

I handed it over again. She said “Hi. I remember you. I’m so sorry. I should’ve let you use this this morning. I just didn’t know how to do it.”

I explained to her that this is a serious issue: if the state is explicitly informing residents that a Tribal ID is acceptable, people should not be turned away or questioned when they show up with one. I pointed to the advertisement poster that was hung up right behind her table - it happened to be the version with my cousin Savannah’s photograph with her Standing Rock Sioux ID in hand. 

“Voting in North Dakota, Easy as Pie!,” it said.

The woman apologized again and began to sift through another binder (perhaps for instructions?) on how to get me through with a Tribal ID. She typed in some information, asked if I had voted in the state before (I had, as an absentee), and eventually got stuck again. She called her over supervisor.

A man with a clipboard approached me and asked to see the card.

“Isn’t it funny that they tell us to let you through with your Tribal ID but your tribe doesn’t even put your address here? Are you sure this is an official card?” he asked.

“Yes. It’s official,” I replied, “Isn’t it funny that the state is advertising everywhere that Tribal IDs are acceptable forms of ID, yet the people running registration here are not even familiar with what a Tribal ID looks like, and they even turned me away this morning because they were unsure how to put a tribal member into the system?”

A second look at the advertisement shows the fine print: the ID must include ND residential address. But many of the other places showing ID requirements (including the homepage and the radio advertisements) did not include that specification.

I then went on to explain the severity of this problem to the supervisor. I’m in a position of privilege, in that I work at a University where my supervisor was happy to let me take a break to go vote; I have a car to drive around town wherever I need to go; when I found out my license needed to be updated, I was able to easily run back to my office where I have a computer, internet access, and a telephone with long distance capabilities; I was able to call the DOT and could’ve even driven to the DMV if I had the time. But what if I hadn’t?

What if I had gotten a ride or taken public transportation to the voting booth in the first place? What if I had no access to internet or computer? What if I were working long hours at a job where I didn’t have the luxury of taking breaks? What if I weren’t able to pay for a long distance phone call? What if I wasn’t sure how to stand up for myself, or didn’t feel comfortable arguing with the registration personnel? I would have been turned away, and I would never have had the opportunity to cast my vote.

After that whole hassle, they eventually let me through. Suddenly, the address issue didn’t matter anymore. It seemed that the supervisor could overrule the regulations at his discretion. Had the tribe and the state been communicating at all? I still don’t quite understand the protocol or the decision making process. The rules should be clearer. It seems as though I got through because I put up an argument.

My concern is that there are thousands of other Native people heading to the polls in off-Reservation towns around the state with their Tribal IDs under the impression that it’s sufficient. How many others faced the same situation but were either too discouraged, too annoyed, or did not have the resources to return and actually get their vote in?

The right to vote with a Tribal ID is one that should not go unprotected. It is the responsibility of voting sites in North Dakota and in any other state that advertises that Tribal IDs are acceptable to familiarize their personnel with how to process Tribal IDs as not to deter American Indian voters.

There is an inherent level of distrust between Native people and the government. Many Natives avoid state elections altogether because we’ve been screwed over by both Democrats and Republicans, at every point in history, on just about every issue. So when we do choose to participate, we should at least be treated with the same level of respect as our non-Native counterparts. 

Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota. She hopes to become a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Indigenous health and wellness. Follow her at or on twitter @CPLuger. (Photo: Eller Bonifacio.)

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