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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Claremont Graduate University GIS and Four Directions Spearhead Safeguarding North Dakota Voting Rights

October 4th, 2019 by Susan Smith

What do you do if you don’t have an actual physical street address and you want to vote? You are definitely eligible to vote, except for that one small detail that has become critical in North Dakota under a new statewide voter identification law.

This legislation, which requires that all North Dakota residents have identification including a street address, has become a major issue in North Dakota. Yet these three individuals: Jean Schroedel, professor of policy and Politics at Claremont Graduate University CGU, Thornton Bradshaw Chair in the Department of Politics & Government,(teaching voter rights among other subjects), Brian Hilton, Clinical Full Professor, CGU with research focus on GIS and OJ Semens, Executive Director of Four Directions (advancing equality at the ballot box across Indian Country) have come together to create emergency building addresses on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

‘I Voted’ stickers on the US flag background.

Their stories, and how they came together, provide a remarkable insight into the challenges faced by Native American populations on reservations in the state, who rarely have building addresses.

Just three weeks before the 2018 election, Claremont Graduate University and Four Directions used Hilton’s Esri GIS maps to build emergency building addresses on the Standing Rock Reservation. With just two weeks until Election Day, Hilton obtained shapefiles of the voting precincts of North Dakota from the Harvard Election Data Archive. He selected the precincts that intersected the Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations, then split those precincts into four roughly equal areas. He used ArcMap and ArcGIS Online to access imagery, streets and OpenStreetMap basemaps.

“Prior to that the tribe were having difficulty working with the state to get physical addresses,” said Semens. “Because tribes are a sovereign government within the U.S., they’re allowed to create their own laws and address system, and so using what Brian sent us, we were able to create addresses on the spot within the districts that were allowed to vote for certain candidates. The potential voters had four addresses basically for each district. They would point to the area they lived on the map and in the address system. As they came in we would have say 2701- and it would be like an apartment complex 02 that we utilized for each address. The first time we used it was prior to the election and sent three people in. We used the tribal letterhead which the tribe allowed us to do and had self-verification by the individual. We would put the name, date of birth and the address.”

This may sound easier than it was. The first showing of Native American voters were three people sent to the auditor’s office in Sioux County. “It took almost 45 minutes before they were allowed to go to vote because the auditor called the sheriff, the sheriff called the secretary of state and the secretary of state called the attorney general and the attorney general called the governor,” said Semens. “They had a conference call for about 45 minutes before the three individuals were allowed to vote.”

What was important about that, said Semens, was that the tribal identification machines were in need of replacement and they cost between $20 and $30, depending upon the tribe. Using Brian’s GIS address systems, however, with a minimum of $20 they could reduce the cost to the $.25 that it would take to copy off the computer. That in itself started to save thousands of dollars.

“We have since met with the tribe and they want to move forward on developing and using Brian’s technique to do more identifying physical addresses,” said Semens.  “When I saw the new map Claremont made for voting, one of the things that made the lightbulb in my head go off was that this is also perfect in Indian country for U.S. Census. Usually in Indian country our undercount is anywhere from 25-35%. A recent study done shows that for every individual not counted in the Census a loss of $3200 per year is incurred. So if we had a 35% undercount, Indian Country is losing  billions of dollars in infrastructure, education, healthcare — every social program. Under the current guidelines of the Census Bureau, if you have a post office box you will not receive a census form. This action came out at the right time as a dual purpose for us to move forward for addressing for voting but as importantly identify individuals who wouldn’t be counted during Census normally, and increase funding for Indian country by billions of dollars in the next ten years.”

Schroedel said that typically reservations don’t have street addresses so there are many other places in Indian Country like North Dakota’s reservations.  “The states usually pass on control of elections to the local counties, and they can change and all of a sudden say you have to have these addresses, so this has happened in the past in a number of other states, it’s not just North Dakota. What makes it a little scary in North Dakota and sets a bad precedent is previously the Supreme Court had something called the Purcell Principle, involving an early case where the court said we can’t allow states, or counties or electoral jurisdictions to change the rules of an election the way or the way they’re administered, right before an election.”

This rule has been used in the past to stop changes that would increase access to voting but in this case, the court said it was okay for North Dakota three weeks before the election to change everything with respect to voting on reservations in this state. Up until this point, upwards of 4-5,000 people were potentially disenfranchised. “If the court allowed that to happen in North Dakota, it could happen any of these other states that have large native populations,” said Schroedel. “If you think Indians may vote for the other political party, which ever one it is, you can do things to make it very hard for them to vote. The importance here is phenomenal in terms of being able to protect this fundamental right. The last people in this country who should have their voting rights halted are the original inhabitants.”

Immediately we can see how the CGU approach would be helpful to other tribal communities. Semens said that they have received word that Arizona is next in line to receive physical addresses for the Navajo nation. The state is looking at including physical addresses on their IDs now in order for the tribe to vote.

With Hilton’s rich background in GIS, he is thinking ahead to an experiment Microsoft did where they got imagery to automatically detect buildings across the U.S. and made the data available. “What they found was that their object detection worked better in rural areas than in urban areas so that is good for rural areas,” said Hilton.  “We needed to find out where addresses were not being used and ideally to know where people live. And physically be able to see that on a map regardless of whether they had an address or not. I started to take that data and put it in for a number of states, and I then I selected out those buildings that intersected tribal lands and that were also rural and not urban. What I found was a large number of those were buildings. Then I ran it against Esri’s geocoder to see which ones of those have addresses or not — again that number is rather large. North Carolina has large tribal areas but addressing is not that good there. There are some issues with it in that since it’s rural — you may find there’s a cluster of three-five buildings in a location, and it’s generally somebody’s farm. It’s one address with several buildings in one location. I need to figure out  how to deal with that.”

Another potential problem is that there is a Department of Transportation address system in North Dakota that is done by the Secretary of State’s office. “There’s confusion because, if the address you got from one state entity does not match the address the election officials are using for your voting,” said Semens. “So it’s still up in the air as to what we can actually use there.  The issue was only between the state entities, not the addresses we provided.”

Hilton said that the streets have been numbered, and if you look at satellite imagery, if you toggle between satellite imagery and an actual cartographic map, they would see that the streets are there. But if you toggle onto satellite imagery then you would see open land. “Streets are there and have been designated but they’re just not in the database so they could be added,” Hilton noted. “That’s going to be labor intensive to add that back into the geocoding database. Then you need to add the ability in there to automatically generate the address that exists in certain areas because it’s in the database but in these rural areas it’s not in the database. We did it by hand for these certain areas and I’d really like to have that in a database. The tools are there to do that; it’s a research issue.”

“In talking about the voting and Census, the difficulty of knowing where someone is and lives is a huge issue in terms of emergencies,” Schroedel pointed out. “If you have someone who is having a heart attack and you call an ambulance and can’t find the location, or if they’ve got different addresses, this could be incredibly important in so many different venues. I think there will be some transition period while getting something acceptable generally, that’s a transition issue. It’s important in terms of voting, census and saving people’s lives in emergency situations.”

Because tribes are sovereign nations, if they were to pass an ordinance to use the addressing system by Claremont, that would override any of the issues that the state would have and the state would be required to follow the address system provided by Claremont to the tribes. “That will be one way to clear up any issues of dual addressing within the reservation.” Semens said.  “Off reservation is a different story.”

The ultimate goal is for the tribes to adopt an ordinance that creates their own address system.

The Burkle addressing system was set up in North Dakota as a way to come up with street addresses. “If you received an old map you’d get a line that here are all the streets and here are all the avenues,” said Hilton. “The system is such that if you’re on 95th Street and you’re between 101st and 102nd Avenue the address would start at 101. The closest one to 101st Avenue would be 101-01 and you move closer to the east it would be 101-99 up to the next street which would be 102. This was a way to generate addresses that makes sense. It’s how we do addresses now. It’s the way the grid was set up and is used elsewhere and it was started in North Dakota and that’s what I used to generate these. Pick a city that has addresses and you’ll see it follow that same convention.”

Schroedel said that when the Supreme Court allowed North Dakota to do this, OJ Semens called and asked if we could do this and she called Brian. “Brian and his GIS team worked their tails off, trying to find the precinct maps. The local people had different precinct maps than the state and then there were maps printed previously in The New York Times so we were going nuts.” Schroedel added that while this was an amazing effort, they can’t do this for every election.

Besides the address issue, travel distance, geographic obstacles, weather, etc. all influence those people who are cut off from voting possibilities and by extension, public services like hospitals and health care.

GIS was used in the past to map travel distance as it is a very big factor. Schroedel and Hilton had worked together previously on the court case Wandering Medicine vs. McCulloch, which dealt with voter access for tribe members who lived in geographically remote areas that restricted their opportunities to vote. When travel distance to get to a polling place goes up, people switch to vote by mail. But that doesn’t happen on reservations. Many people on reservations don’t have home mail delivery so people have to go to post office boxes. Under the new legislation, post office boxes as addresses are not acceptable. Sometimes there will be whole families sharing a post office box. Thus voting by mail for reservation dwellers is not a viable alternative.

“Four Directions has been involved with a series of court cases going back to 2010 involving travel distance. Why should people on reservations have to travel several hundred miles round trip to vote?” said Schroedel. “There have been cases in South Dakota and Arizona where counties are refusing to establish voting on reservations,  and have typically run up the cost of litigation to fight it. At the last minute when it looks like they’re going to lose, they settle. And when you settle a court case, some of the attorneys have been incurring several hundred thousand dollars cost for pursuing these cases. People on reservations are poor and the tribes are poor and can’t afford to pay. A group that does most of these cases is North American Native Rights Fund, but they’re handling everything involving native people/ It’s a huge issue.”

Semens highlighted a successful civil rights ruling in Nevada that ruled that 30 miles is too far for people to have to travel to vote. “The judge ordered the states to establish satellite offices on Pyramid Lake and Walker River reservations. They got state legislators called to action and passed legislation that requires all election officials to work with the tribes to establish more satellite offices. This was a landmark case that took care of a lot of decisions and really set a precedent about how we can move forward.”

On the border between Nevada and Idaho is the Duck Valley reservation. For those people to vote they would have to drive all the way to Reno, Nevada.

“Claremont has done amazing things that have helped in Indian country throughout the years and voting is one of them, GIS is one of them,” said Semens. “We need to find ways to fund this, in order to be able to have tribes have the ordinance change in the future.”

The result of the 2018 election was phenomenal: voter turnout for Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain, and Spirit Lake reservations was the highest ever recorded. It is hoped that if the issue of voter suppression based on a street address requirement comes up again, the tools to build addressing systems are now readily available.

Schroedel summed up in a YouTube interview on the CGU channel, “I can’t think of another time where I felt that the research…mattered quite as much.”

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Categories: 9-1-1, 9-1-1 GIS systems, analytics, ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, Big Data, crowd source, data, election maps, emergency response, Esri, field GIS, geocoding, geospatial, GIS, government, handhelds, health, historical topography maps, image-delivery software, location based sensor fusion, location based services, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, mobile mapping, Open Source, OpenStreetMap, public safety, real estate, satellite imagery, SmartBetterCities, Street View, transportation, U.S. Census, what3words

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