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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published October 12 2010

Spirit Lake Tribe wants polling place

The Spirit Lake Tribe will seek an injunction this week asking a federal court to prevent Benson County from closing polling places on the Spirit Lake Reservation for the Nov. 2 General Election.

The request is in response to the County Board’s decision to close all but one polling place in the county. No polling places were open on the reservation for the June Primary Election.

The North Dakota Legislature in 2007 passed a bill that allowed counties to initiate a voting-by-mail election system that required no more than one polling place to be open on Election Day.

Today, about half of the state’s 53 counties have vote-by-mail systems. However, Spirit Lake is the only Indian reservation in the state without a polling place.

“Whether this was intentional discrimination or not, the bottom line is that closing polling locations located within the Spirit Lake Nation will disenfranchise American Indian voters on the reservation, and this injustice cannot stand,” said Myra Pearson, Spirit Lake chairwoman.

Benson County initially decided in October 2009 to switch to a vote-by-mail election system this year.

In a meeting last month, the County Board reaffirmed its decision, citing the high expense of operating polling places, training and staffing at the polling sites.

Tribal leaders offered to recruit, train and pay election workers, to provide facilities for polling locations free of rent, and to share the costs of polling places if the county made polling places available.

The County Board later decided to stand by its decision but to consider it for future elections.

Under the new system, the county has just one polling place, located in the county courthouse in Minnewaukan, N.D., open Election Day. Spirit Lake Reservation, which measures about 495 square miles in size, has a population of about 4,500 American Indians.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, called the decision “a disgrace.”

Pearson said this is not the first time the tribe has taken the county to court over voting issues.

In 2000, then-U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb ordered Benson County to divide the county into five county commission voting districts, with two of the districts comprised of a majority of Native Americans and voting-age Native American population.

“Native American citizens within Benson County have suffered from a history of official racial discrimination in voting and other areas, such as education, employment and housing,” Webb wrote in his March 2000 decision. “Native American citizens in Benson County continue to bear the effects of this past discrimination, reflected in their markedly lower socioeconomic status compared to the white population. These factors hinder Native Americans’ present-day ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

County officials have said the vote-by-mail issue has nothing to do with racial discrimination, adding that people living in western Benson County are just as far away from Minnewaukan as people living on the reservation.

More than 40 percent of Benson County’s voters in the 2008 Election were Native Americans, when Davey Davidson, St. Michael, N.D., became the first enrolled Spirit Lake member ever to be to the Benson County Commission.

Kevin Bonham is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald