In rural western North Dakota, tens of thousands of men work in the lucrative oil fields, far away from their families sprinkled across the country.
The residents of these “man camps” may not know it, but they could decide which party controls the Senate.
Only one or two races will determine the Senate majority in November’s elections — and the North Dakota race is one of the most competitive. But it’s the state’s lax voting requirements and small population that make nomadic oil-field workers politically relevant.
That’s why the candidates — former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) and Rep. Rick Berg (R) — started working camps that house transient workers months ago.
“Not a week goes by where you don’t hear about Heidi Heitkamp or Rick Berg stumping in the oil fields, visiting Walmarts, a coffee shop or ‘man camps’ where these oil workers live,” said Patrick Davis, a Republican consultant who works in the state.
In larger states, it’s an unproductive chore to target and register unreliable voters such as these. But North Dakota has the least cumbersome voting requirements in the country.
It’s the only state without voter registration. Residents must only show proof of residency for the last 30 days, such as a utility bill or driver’s licence, to cast a ballot.
If voters don’t have proof of residency handy, they can sign an affidavit confirming residency — or one of the local poll workers can vouch for residency in a special form. What’s more, half of the state’s counties offer vote by mail with the same affidavit.
For months, polls have shown the race between Berg and Heitkamp as a statistical tie. That means every vote counts in the pool of about 350,000 voters expected to cast ballots in the open-seat contest.
It’s difficult to determine the exact number of transient oil workers. But North Dakota’s population has increased by 44,000 since 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Experts say most of that growth is in the rural western part of the state.
The explosive growth has led to a housing shortage. Workers with license plates from as far away as Colorado, Texas and Louisiana reside in small trailer camps. The workers often commute for two weeks at a time to North Dakota before returning home.