Few voters verify ID under North Dakota's new 'set aside' ballot system
BISMARCK — Less than a fifth of North Dakotans who marked a “set aside” ballot during last week’s midterm election followed up with a valid identification and had their vote counted, a state election official said Friday, Nov. 16.
Under state law, voters who don’t have sufficient identification on Election Day may mark a ballot that’s separated from the rest. If a voter returns with an adequate ID within six days, the ballot would be included in the tally.
The new procedure was introduced in the latest iteration of North Dakota’s voter ID law, which passed the Republican-controlled Legislature and was signed by Gov. Doug Burgum in 2017.
Across the state, 1,110 voters marked a set aside ballot, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said. Only 141 of them, or 13 percent, returned to verify their ID, but several counties had not yet reported their figures to state officials by 8 a.m. Friday. At most, 219 people returned to verify their ID.
In Cass County, only 13 out of 495 people who marked a set aside ballot followed up with their ID, a rate of less than 3 percent. Cass County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said most people who filled out a set aside ballot had out-of-state IDs.
“In the Legislature’s mind, are those people residents of North Dakota or are they just here temporarily and going back somewhere else?” he said.
Montplaisir said the process prompted some college students to obtain a North Dakota driver’s license, while others verified their address with supplemental documentation despite having an out-of-date ID. Others, however, were reluctant to get a North Dakota ID that’s required to vote because they were only in the state for school or because they feared it could affect their resident hunting license elsewhere.
“It kind of ran the gamut,” Montplaisir said.
Silrum speculated some people didn't follow up because they decided their vote wouldn't have affected electoral outcomes.
Twenty-one of the 71 set aside ballot voters in Burleigh County returned to verify their identification, and 21 of the 161 in Grand Forks County did the same, Silrum said.
Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson, who's representing several tribal members in a high-profile case against the North Dakota voter ID law, called the set aside ballot provision a "joke" and said he wasn't surprised by the number of people who took the extra steps to ensure their vote was counted. He recalled a conversation he had with a college student in Grand Forks who was too busy to follow up with election officials.
"People don't come back and the legislation knew they wouldn't come back," Dickson said. "They just didn't want certain constituencies to vote."
State election officials and Republican lawmakers have denied that they aimed to disenfranchise voters and instead framed the law as an effort to promote election "integrity." North Dakota is the only state without voter registration.
The new procedure was meant to address what state officials and lawmakers saw as flaws with the previous voter affidavit system. Under that process, a voter who didn’t have an ID could sign an affidavit self-certifying their eligibility to cast a ballot, but there was no way to remove their vote if they were later found to be ineligible.
The state warned earlier this year that “thousands of unverifiable votes” would likely be cast if it was forced to use the affidavits. A federal judge later chastised the state for raising “a litany of embellished concerns” and said it hasn’t shown evidence of voter fraud.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to reverse an appellate court decision just weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Attorneys representing North Dakota tribal members have targeted a separate provision requiring that IDs include a residential street address, which they argue are not always assigned on reservations.