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After voters complain, Cass County asks North Dakota AG for clarity on proof-of-citizenship question

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said his letter seeking an attorney general's opinion "was not written at the urging of any voting rights groups. I simply found the law was not as clear as it could be regarding proof of citizenship.

People stop at West Acres in south Fargo, N.D. to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service
A sign directs voters to the polls at West Acres mall in south Fargo on Nov. 4, 2014.
Forum file photo
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FARGO — After voting advocacy groups raised concerns about Fargo poll workers asking voters for proof of citizenship during the June primary election, the Cass County state’s attorney has asked the North Dakota attorney general to clarify the law.

Currently, state law makes no mention of having potential voters prove citizenship at the polls, according to a July 18 letter Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick sent to North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley.

In the letter, Burdick requests Wrigley's opinion, saying although requirements for presenting a valid identification card at the voting booth are clear, confusion still exists for those who present a non-citizen identification, but claim they are now citizens.

“Some concerns were expressed during the primary related to election workers asking (or not) for proof of citizenship from potential voters whose government-issued ID noted they were not citizens,” Burdick told The Forum in an email.

“Albeit it may seem counter intuitive to some, the election laws do not expressly require, and as a result would appear not to authorize, an election worker to require an individual to produce documentation of their citizenship if the election worker has information that at one point that individual was not a U.S. citizen, but the individual states they are now a citizen,” Burdick said.

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“After reviewing the matter, and clarifying how we should handle it on the day of the June election, I felt it important to seek clarification from the AG as to how the law should be interpreted for the November election,” Burdick said.

In June, voting rights groups and other advocacy group organizers received complaints about people of color being asked to prove their citizenship. The complaints spurred DeAnn Buckhouse, Cass County election coordinator, to monitor the West Acres mall voting site in Fargo.

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Currently, voters whose citizenship is in question can choose to fill out a preliminary “set aside” ballot and then confirm citizenship once proof is presented, or in other cases they can leave and update their address with the North Dakota Department of Transportation and come back, Buckhouse said in June.

Burdick said his letter seeking an attorney general's opinion "was not written at the urging of any voting rights groups. I simply found the law was not as clear as it could be regarding proof of citizenship. I felt it would be valuable to get the clarification that only the state AG can provide to political subdivisions on that topic."

Burdick's letter seeks clarification on three issues:

  • If someone presents identification indicating that at some point they were not a U.S. citizen, but says they are now a citizen, can election workers take them at their word?
  • What kind of proof of citizenship should be considered satisfactory?
  • Can the canvassing board exclude the “set aside” ballot if satisfactory proof of citizenship is not provided?

Wrigley said his office has received the letter and is evaluating if it is an issue he should give an opinion on.
“We’re doing some research on some federal legislation that impacts these situations as well. We’ll be addressing the question as it is posed to us,” Wrigley said.

“Voter integrity is critical, and however our laws can help ensure that, we should all be unified in ensuring that everyone who wants to vote can do so as long as they’re a lawful voter. On the other side of that equation non-citizens voting is an affront to democracy. We just want to be sure we have a system in place,” Wrigley said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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