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Analysis underscores financial hurdles for Native American, rural voters

"It's not fair when you have limited income and you have to choose between gas money and food for the week. Having a polling site that is local, that people can walk to, like there have been in the past, does certainly make a difference," said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote.

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Nicole Donaghy, left, with North Dakota Native Vote organizers Allison Renville and Elliot Bannister at a get-out-the-vote event in 2018.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Donaghy
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BISMARCK — A project that reviewed data relating to hurdles Native Americans face when it comes to voting underscores the challenges such communities, and rural communities in general, face when it comes to making their voices heard at the ballot box.

That's according to Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, a nonprofit formed in 2018 to advocate for Native Americans and to mobilize them on key issues.

Donaghy said a project that North Dakota Native Vote worked on with Mato Ohitika Analytics, a native-oriented data analysis company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, confirmed a number of issues Native Americans often face when voting.

She said those hurdles include disparities when it comes to distances that must be traveled when trying to vote, either in person or by absentee ballot.

"There are obstacles, intentional or not," Donaghy said, noting that Sioux County, which is in southeastern North Dakota and is contained entirely within the Standing Rock reservation, has only one polling site, which is in Fort Yates.

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"If you live in Porcupine, if you live in Cannon Ball ... any of these outlying communities, you're going to have to drive a distance to get to the polls on Nov. 8," said Donaghy, who noted that the recent analysis by Mato Ohitika Analytics showed it would cost more than $1,000 per 100 voters to make the round-trip journey from Porcupine to Fort Yates.

"It's not fair when you have limited income and you have to choose between gas money and food for the week. Having a polling site that is local, that people can walk to, like there have been in the past, does certainly make a difference," said Donaghy, who noted her organization has been doing what it can to convince local election officials to increase the number of polling sites.

Joseph Robertson, chief data scientist with Mato Ohitika Analytics, said an interesting development in recent years was legislative redistricting in North Dakota that resulted in two subdistricts being entirely contained within American Indian reservations.

Those subdistricts, tied to seats in the state House of Representatives, include District 9A on the Turtle Mountain reservation and District 4A on the Fort Berthold reservation.

Robertson said it will be interesting to see if the change results in greater representation of the Native American community in the state Legislature.

Donaghy agreed.

"That was a huge win for us. We're very proud about that," Donaghy said of the redistricting outcome, adding that when it comes to dealing with barriers to voting, the Native American community is not alone.

"I'm speaking in reference to my relatives, the native people of North Dakota, but the same could be applied to the very rural districts in North Dakota as well," Donaghy said.

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Mary C. Tintes, a member of the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley and vice president of the North Dakota League of Women Voters, agreed that North Dakota and other states with vast open spaces face challenges when it comes to citizens casting votes.

She said legislation passed in North Dakota and around the country in recent years has made it more difficult for certain populations to vote, including Native Americans and the elderly.

Some of those laws involve stricter requirements for voter identification.

"Having to find those documents that confirm who they are and where they live ... people in their 80s and 90s who may not be able to easily obtain those documents — there are those kinds of barriers," Tintes said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

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