Nine Native American tribes say their state is infringing on their voting rights after Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske denied their request to have early voting polling booths set up on their reservations. Some tribes now say they face nearly 300-mile roundtrips to vote.
Members of the tribes argue that not providing accessible voting stations is a violation of their right to vote. The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter to Cegavske's office on Oct. 21 listing nine locations where they said early voting booths should be established and outlined their concerns over the lack of access:
"While it was noted your office has not taken any effort to investigate problems Native Americans on Nevada reservations have experienced in voting access, we wish to bring to your attention the great distances faced by other Native Americans to access early voting in Nevada," the letter reads.
None of the tribes included in the request have ever had Election Day or early polling stations on tribal land, leaving them to use mailed-in ballots–a factor which advocates say can discourage voters. Native voting rights advocacy group Four Directions was involved in this year's lawsuit and is working with the nine tribes whose request has been denied this week.
"Tribal members don't even trust mailed in ballots, they don't even think they're going to count," Bret Healy, a consultant for the group, told Fusion.
Most of the nine tribes are based in remote locations, with up to 275-mile roundtrips to their closest polling stations. For tribes based in cities, like the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, they're requesting polling stations on tribal-owned facilities, which would encourage more Native people to go to the polls, Healy said.
"There's a fundamental difference between having a voting station on land that you feel welcome in and elsewhere," he said. "In the court case we brought forth evidence that tribal members feel more comfortable being in a facility owned by tribes—its because discrimination still exists."
But Cegavske said the Inter-Tribal Council's request came too late to give the state time to set up polling stations on the reservations. Five days after their letter was sent, her office responded with a letter citing logistical problems in setting up voting stations and training staff before Nov. 8., because they say the letter reached them just 24 hours before the two-week early voting period began on Oct. 22.
“Based upon our discussions with each of the seven county officials who would be impacted by your request, as well as with the vendor of the voting machines that are used in Nevada, we understand that it would be virtually impossible at this late date to redistribute voting machines because they are already in place and calibrated for use at their current early voting locations,” Cegavske said in the letter:
The tribes' petition came just weeks after a federal judge ruled in favor of two other Nevada tribes, the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiutes, who filed a suit against Cegavske's office and two counties, asking for the same early voting access on their reservations. Federal Judge Miranda Du found in that case that the lack of polling stations on the tribes' reservations both for Election Day and early voting placed an "undue burden" on Native Americans in those tribes and was a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"The court acknowledges the substantial costs that injunctive relief places upon the counties, especially at this late hour," Du wrote in her ruling. "It is difficult, however, to balance a financial and logistical hardship with a burden on constitutional rights."
Healy alleged in a statement that the denial of access to Native Americans appeared to be in line with Republican interests, since native voters tend to lean toward Democrats and Nevada is a swing state.
“She [Cegavske] happens to be a Tea Party Republican,” he said. “It’s not unknown if you look at data at all that ‘those Indians, they vote the wrong way.’ 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.”
Cegavske's office said in their letter that her office would be open to extending operating hours at existing voting sights this election and discussing early voting arrangements on reservations for future elections. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.