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North Dakota Democratic lawmakers seek student IDs for voting

The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker

BISMARCK — Democratic lawmakers in the North Dakota Legislature have introduced a bill allowing the state’s college students to use a university-issued identification to vote.

House Bill 1479 would require colleges and universities to provide students with an identification card that could be scanned by a polling clerk to access their address in the state's central voter file, but IDs issued to students younger than 18 years old or noncitizens must appear "significantly" different. The bill was scheduled to have its first hearing Thursday, Jan. 24.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Grand Forks Democratic Rep. Matt Eidson, said he heard about “pretty widespread” student voting issues during the 2018 campaign. The state has been locked in a yearslong legal battle over its voter ID laws, a fight that drew national attention last year over its effects on Native Americans.

Student leaders have said frequent changes ordered by the courts and the Legislature have caused confusion. Republicans who hold a supermajority in the state Legislature have defended the state's voter ID law as a way to prevent fraud, while Democrats have criticized the statute.

“The legislation that I’m bringing forward is not trying to assert that the way student IDs are now is good and should be added, it’s trying to find that middle ground and bring it up to the standards that state IDs are held at,” said Eidson, a freshman lawmaker who earned an undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota in December after eight years in the Marine Corps.

State law requires a North Dakota driver’s license, a nondriver’s ID card, a tribal ID or a long-term care certificate to vote at the polls. It allows voters to use supplemental documentation, such as a utility bill or bank statement, prove their eligibility.

Eidson said he hopes to have the new student IDs available ahead of the 2020 presidential election. He said the bill could increase voter turnout.

The bill isn’t meant to be retroactive and would only apply to new students, Eidson said, although a fiscal note assumes cards would need to be reissued to roughly 45,000 students in the North Dakota University System. Along with the costs of issuing cards to freshman and transfers as well as software, the legislation comes with an estimated price tag of $140,000 in the 2019-21 budget cycle.

Eidson said he’d offer amendments to give students the option to buy the new IDs or keep the current ones, which he described as an effort to cover the bill’s costs.

Republican Secretary of State Al Jaeger, the state’s top elections official, declined to comment on the specifics of the bill, citing ongoing litigation. He said, however, his office would follow the Legislature’s direction.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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