Judge orders ND reservation voting sites open

By Blake Nicholson
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) November 2010

A federal judge has ruled that Benson County must open two polling sites on an American Indian reservation for the Nov. 2 election, though he says the county’s decision to close them wasn’t tied to racial discrimination.

Judge Ralph Erickson said in his ruling last week that sites in Fort Totten and Warwick will be open to voters, though a third contested site in Oberon is off the Spirit Lake reservation and will remain closed.

The county decided to have only one polling site, in the county seat of Minnewaukan, to save money, a move that complies with state law. The tribe took the case to court, arguing the decision would hurt Indian voting and continue a “history of official racial discrimination in voting.”

Erickson said there is no evidence of intentional discrimination. However, he said it is too late to hold a trial on how Indian voters would be affected by no reservation polling sites, so the county “must accommodate the voting concerns of the tribe.”

“The potential harm that would be suffered by plaintiffs if they were deprived of their constitutional right to vote outweighs any monetary harm which would fall upon Benson County,” Erickson said.

County State’s Attorney Jim Wang was out of the office last week and unavailable for comment. County Commission Chairman Lowell Haagenson did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

County Auditor Bonnie Erickson said she will comply with the order.

“I’ll be working towards getting those polling sites set up,” she said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., also pushed for the reservation sites to be open.

“Judge Erickson did the right thing,” Dorgan said in a statement. “I felt that the previous decision by the Benson County Commission to close long-established polling sites on the Spirit Lake Reservation would disenfranchise many of our state’s Native American voters.”

Erickson’s ruling does not change the county’s decision to close four other polling sites in the county not on the reservation.