For two Native American tribes in northern Nevada, casting an early ballot next month will require multiple hours, access to a car, and a tank full of gas.
Those two tribes, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes and Walker River Paiutes, filed a lawsuit in federal court last week demanding that Nevada establish satellite election offices on their reservations so they have the same ballot access as white members of their community.
Both tribes argue that the lack of voter registration offices and early voting locations on their reservations hurts Native American voter turnout. In order to register to vote or cast a ballot in-person before Election Day, the roughly 1,700 Pyramid Lake Paiutes and over 1,200 Walter River Paiutes have to travel 96 miles round-trip and 70 miles round-trip respectively to the closest early voting location at the county clerks’ offices.
For Native Americans, who tend to be poorer and less mobile than the average Nevadan, that trip can be a huge barrier — often one that prevents them from casting a ballot.
In order to increase Native voter participation, both tribes requested in August that satellite election offices for registration and early voting to be added to their reservations for the last ten days of Nevada’s registration period, a crucial time when many people register to vote last-minute.
But Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) denied the request, citing the short period of time before the election.
“She happens to be a Tea Party Republican,” said Bret Healy, a consultant with the Native American voting rights group Four Directions. “It’s not unknown if you look at data at all that ‘those Indians, they vote the wrong way.’ It’s a one-point, two-point Trump Clinton race and the Senate race is that tight too.”
“She would get, I’m sure, excoriated by her Republican colleagues if she would make it easier for a constituency that leans Democratic to vote,” he continued.
Meanwhile, white residents of the same counties have voting centers located within their communities. Residents of Incline Village, a wealthy town near northern Lake Tahoe, only need to drive a few miles to their local library.
“Those neighbors who have literally 10 to 20 times as much wealth, on average, as Pyramid Lake Paiutes, they don’t even have to get their Land Rovers and Escalades dirty driving down the road,” Healy said.
When confronted about the disparity, the state claimed that Native Americans can still register by mail or on the internet, according to Healy. But he pointed out that people living on reservations often do not have access to the internet and may not be comfortable filling out registration forms on their own.
But even if those methods were valid, the Native American population would still have fewer methods of voting than the white population, he said.
“Under the Voting Rights Act and under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, you can’t have it be that Native American tribal members living on reservations get two ways to vote, and the Anglo community gets 12 ways to vote, and somehow that’s an equal vote and you haven’t denied the right to vote on the account of race,” he said. “That’s exactly what you’ve done.”
While it’s focusing on Nevada this year, Four Directions has fought for Native American voting rights across the country during the past few election cycles. In 2014, the group filed a number of lawsuits against South Dakota counties that were similarly suppressing the Native American vote. In some cases, like on the Pine Ridge reservation, the group was successful and the addition of a satellite voting center increased Native voting turnout by roughly 130 percent.
Healy is hoping for similar success in Nevada and would like the federal judge to grant an injunction opening up satellite voting centers before the end of early voting. Meanwhile, the secretary of state and other elections officials are ready to move on, claiming they will work with the tribes to ensure easier ballot access next election.
“Well next time there may not be a Senate race that’s [this close],” he said, citing the race for Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)’s open seat, which polls show is within two points.
“You’ve got an election that’s really goddamn important, and they’re saying ‘next time.’ Next time, maybe we’ll let these tribes have an equal vote next time.”