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North Dakota’s Voter ID Law Threatens to Silence Native Americans

One would think that if you’re a U.S. Congressman who insulted your state’s largest minority population and threatened bodily injury to their Tribally-elected leaders while in the process of verbally assaulting a Native American woman at a very public state coalition meeting for Abused Women’s Services that you would apologize.  That would be the smart, decent thing to do, right?

Apparently North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer doesn’t think so.  On March 26, 2013, he spent nearly half an hour laying into Melissa Merrick, the Director of the Spirit Lake Victim Assistance Program.  She’s also a tribal member who happens to be a survivor of child sexual abuse.  During that time, Cramer reportedly stated in front of a roomful of domestic violence advocates that he wanted to “wring the Spirit Lake tribal council’s necks and slam them against the wall.”  He also called tribal governments dysfunctional, and went on a tirade against provisions in the Violence Against Women Act that are meant to protect Native American women.  His tantrum was so disturbing that attendees at the meeting got up and left.  By the time the dust settled, another Native American woman present was in tears.

Cramer had no problem addressing the media once the story broke- but instead of apologizing for his verbal attack and decidedly inappropriate behavior, he took the opportunity to reiterate his anger towards North Dakota tribes and personally assail Ms. Merrick even further, at one point saying “once a victim, always a victim” about her on a news program broadcast out of Fargo, N.D.  Furthermore, Cramer, to this day, has never denied that he threatened tribal leaders with physical violence.

North Dakota tribes were outraged.  They responded to the incident via press releases asking for a formal apology from Representative Cramer, and requesting a meeting with him.  So far, those pleas have gone unanswered.

According to Melissa, Cramer, a Republican, hasn’t apologized privately either.  “I have not spoken to Congressman Cramer since the NDCAWS meeting in Bismarck when the incident occurred,” Ms .Merrick says.  “I’ve read the papers, listened to a radio show and heard that he’s apologized for his ‘tone,’ but even that didn’t sound like a real apology.  He said that he was thinking on a bigger scale and I couldn’t help getting upset due to my ‘tribal side’- but he nor his staff have not contacted me.  I have not heard that he’s contacted the North Dakota tribes either.”

Congressman Cramer’s unwillingness to apologize or meet with North Dakota Tribes seems especially unwise because North Dakota Natives are more politically active than ever and are now voting in record numbers.  In the 2012 Senatorial election, North Dakota counties containing reservations all voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who won that seat by a small margin that would not have existed but for Natives who cast their ballot for her.  In short, those who run for office in the State of North Dakota can’t afford to ignore the Native vote any longer.

But wait- hold the phone.  On April 3, 2013, a mere EIGHT DAYS after Cramer’s outburst, the North Dakota Senate passed HB1332, a bill that makes presenting an ID mandatory in order to vote.

Voter ID laws are controversial because many believe they disenfranchise legitimate elderly, student, and minority voters.  Discouraging even a small percentage of citizens from casting their vote at the ballot box could sway any election, particularly in a hotly-contested race.  North Dakota’s electoral landscape is relatively unique, too.  Our voting population is much smaller.  We have only one U.S. House Representative.  Right now, that’s Kevin Cramer.

While supporters say Voter ID laws are necessary to combat voter fraud, studies show the “problem” is virtually non-existent.  One analysis by News21 identified only 10 cases of voter fraud out of 2, 068 alleged cases- which equates to only 1 out of every 15 million prospective voters.

When asked if she thought there’s a possible connection between Cramer’s recent verbal barrage against Native Americans in North Dakota and the sudden push for new Voter ID laws in the state, Melissa Merrick says, “When I spoke up against the Congressman, I knew there may be consequences for speaking the truth.  What I didn’t foresee was the fear of the others in the room-so much so that they were afraid to publicly confirm the Congressman’s actions.  They were afraid of being attacked by the media as they watched me being attacked.  They were also afraid of losing funding if they spoke up.  I did not think that there would be any sort of backlash because it seemed to be focused on me.  Tribes issued statements calling for a meeting with the Cramer and asking for an apology, but nothing has happened.  The timing of this Voter ID requirement bill seems a bit too coincidental.”  She continued, “I see this type of ‘punishment’ in the work that I do.  When a victim of abuse finally has the courage to speak the truth about the abuser, punishments in all forms are brought forward, all of which are meant to stop the victim from speaking, to regain control, to intimidate, and most importantly to send the message of who has the power and control and who does not.”

However, this fight is far from over.  Should the Voter ID bill become law, tribes are prepared to challenge it.  On its face, it appears the proposed bill probably violates provisions in the Federal Voting Rights Act that allow for the use of tribal IDs.  Natives intend to protect their voting rights, so Cramer might want to rethink his stance on refusing to apologize to Ms. Merrick and North Dakota Natives.  On the other hand, some tribal elders are saying that too much time has passed and any words he says now would ring hollow- the damage has been done.  Next election, we’ll voice our opinion on the matter, in droves.

Ruth Hopkins is a Native American writer, blogger, Judge, administrator, a founding writer at Lastrealindians.com, and columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is an author, blogger, biologist, activist, judge, columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, and founding writer with Lastrealindians.com.

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