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Grand Forks legislators hope to increase voting access for airmen and UND students

Some are concerned that North Dakota's voter ID law makes it more difficult for legal residents of North Dakota who might not have a permanent address here to vote.

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Early voters cast their ballots on Monday, Oct. 26, at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks during the start of early in-person voting. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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Grand Forks County saw record voter turnout in the 2020 election. But when compared to other areas of the state and country, the local record was broken by a relatively modest margin. Now, some Grand Forks legislators are calling it an outlier that needs to be examined further.

Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, says he believes the relatively low turnout is due in large part to Grand Forks’ more transient populations: UND students, active duty airmen and their families who live on Grand Forks Air Force Base, who might reside in North Dakota for longer than the requisite 30 days but who might still use a driver's license issued by another state.

"The last thing we want is for people to feel like they were not able to cast a vote," Meyer said. "Elections are so important to our republic. They're living here, they're earning income here, so if they want to vote, we need to make sure we're giving everyone a chance to cast a legal ballot."

Meyer – along with Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks – is in the early stages of preparing legislation that aims to make it easier for qualified Grand Forks County voters who aren’t necessarily permanent residents to vote.

North Dakota is the only state that does not have voter registration, and at present, voters need a valid state ID to cast a ballot. That voter ID requirement was passed by the North Dakota Legislature in 2013. The law has been tweaked and softened since then – perhaps the biggest change came last year, when North Dakota’s tribes secured the right to use their tribal IDs to vote after claiming the law created unfair barriers to voting for tribal members.

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Meyer said the goal is to eventually allow people to vote with military IDs and student IDs as well, but Kreun said they have attempted to pass similar legislation in the past without success. Last legislative session, he said, both UND and the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office were "leery" of the idea, citing privacy issues.

Lee Ann Oliver, an elections specialist for the Secretary of State’s Office, said that as the law is currently written, university students and members of the military are subject to the same rules as anyone else.

"I get calls all the time saying, 'Well, I'm a Minnesota resident, but I go to school here, how can I vote here?'" she said. "Well, what did you just tell me? You told me you're a Minnesota resident, so you need to check with Minnesota."

A record 31,142 people turned out to vote in the 2020 election in Grand Forks County, an increase of 433 since 2016. A population increase doesn’t necessarily explain the voter increase – according to the North Dakota Census Office, the number of eligible voters in Grand Forks County has increased by only five people in the last four years, from 55,838 in 2016 to 55,843 now.

Instead, the consensus is that, in a year when all bets were off, people turned out to exercise their right to vote in record numbers.

That wasn’t true in every precinct in Grand Forks, however.

Overall, District 18 saw a slight dip in voters in 2020, although turnout at the precinct that encompasses Grand Forks Air Force Base, increased about 6% this year, when comparing Senate races since 2012.

UND political science professor Dana Harsell and North Dakota ACLU Director Dane DeKrey agreed that they haven't heard of any cases of Grand Forks airmen and their families being underenfranchised in North Dakota.

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"That is a real third rail of politics," DeKrey said. "You don't want to be the political party or the politician to make it harder for veterans and military members to vote."

District 42, which encompasses UND, is another story. In the past three general elections, that district has seen turnout drop precipitously. Voting trends between UND and non-UND precincts in that district are stark: in a comparison of Senate races since 2012, non-UND precincts have seen a drop in turnout of about 6%, while UND precincts have seen a drop of about 50%.

Mac Schneider, a former Dem-NPL legislator for Grand Forks who previously served as a state senator in the district, said the pandemic likely impacted those numbers this year. More students were likely working from home, and with more people casting mail-in ballots, it’s likely that many students who were living in Grand Forks cast absentee ballots using their parents’ address. Students also might simply have been more risk-averse this year, and avoided steps like going to the DMV to get the North Dakota driver's license that would have allowed them to vote.

But the pandemic can’t fully explain the trend, which clearly starts before 2020, Schneider said. Harsell agrees.

"It's pretty well-established out there that when you create barriers to voter registration or actual voting, since we don't have voter registration, it can depress turnout," Harsell said. "So I definitely think there's something there."

Both say there could be other factors at play beyond restrictive voting laws. Schneider said that, even before the pandemic, mail-in voting has become easier and more widely acceptable. Harsell noted that different candidates and issues on the ballot can energize university students differently from year to year.

But they both agreed that state voter ID laws could very well be one of the driving forces behind the drop in turnout. Passage of the ID requirement in 2013 likely depressed turnout in 2016. However, in that election, students who did not have proper identification could still vote using an affidavit, which a judge ruled the state needed to offer due to the recently-changed ID law. This year, that was not an option, likely depressing turnout even further.

Theoretically, the voter ID law protects elections from voter fraud, but Schneider alleges that the actual intended purpose of the law is to make it more difficult for some groups to vote, specifically Indigenous people and university students.

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"Voter fraud is so rare almost to the point of being non-existent in our state," Schneider said. "Why would the Legislature implement an ID requirement when there was no voter fraud? From my perspective, clearly it was more to reduce turnout of certain groups, to throw another barrier in the way. Again, those barriers can be overcome, but why should they have to be when there's no meaningful voter fraud instances in North Dakota?"

DeKrey said that, ultimately, it's difficult to say with much certainty whether the voter ID law is depressing turnout. However, he considers questions about whether North Dakota’s Voter ID law impacted the elections to be just as much an indictment of the law as the answers might be.

"We don't like these sorts of laws because they lead to these sorts of questions," DeKrey said. "And then another issue that is problematic is the very reason why you're writing this story: someone called you and is doubting democracy, they're doubting the fairness of our elections, and they're worried that people aren't getting the chance to participate."

Meyer said he doesn’t see the possible legislation to help UND students and Grand Forks airmen vote part of any longer-term overhaul of the voter ID law, though.

"This is not going to be a major overhaul in any respect," he said. "It's going to be, I think, very simple. It's a pretty clean cut-and-dry bill. These are people that have taken residency in North Dakota, and they're here living, working, going to school. So I really I don't see it as being an overhaul, but just an addition to our current laws."

Herald correspondent Sam Easter contributed to this story.

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Scott Meyer, North Dakota lawmaker. (Submitted photo)

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