Your Voice 2016
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RENO, Nevada—Last Friday, 99-year-old Flora Greene voted at a polling station on land owned by her tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiute, for the first time in her life, her granddaughter and great-granddaughter looking on.
“I didn’t think much of it,” she told me casually, sitting at the dining table in the home she shares with her family in Nixon, on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation in Nevada, about 50 miles from Reno.
Her granddaughter and great-granddaughter also voted early at the Nixon polling site at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s tribal office, nestled in the arid mountains that surround Pyramid Lake.
“It’s important because it’s the first time we’ve gotten to see our elders vote here. It made me proud to watch her vote that day,” Flora’s 19-year-old great-granddaughter, Dashina Greene, told me.
She said she hopes voting stations on reservations encourage more young Native Americans like her to vote, because she sees political influence as a way to preserve Native traditions like the crafts and language her grandmother taught her.
“These days kids don’t really learn about Paiute or any of these things, the traditions, the way I learned them,” Green said. “Having a voice is so important. That’s what Native people need.”
All three generations of women said they voted for Hillary Clinton. I asked Flora Greene if she ever thought a woman would run for president. “No, I didn’t think so,” she said, after a pause.
This is the first time the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, with 2,253 enrolled members, has had polling stations on their reservation. Flora Greene was three years old when women won the right to vote—seven when Native Americans won those rights. In every election year since 1924, when Native Americans were granted the right to vote, they’ve had to use mail-in ballots or drive close to 100 miles round-trip to sites in Reno to register, vote early, or vote on Election Day.
“The minute that they [Native voting advocates] heard about grandma they were determined to get her to go and vote because she’s our eldest elder,” Miranda Greene, Flora’s granddaughter, told me. “For her, it was nice to see all the young people coming out to vote and getting to see those who usually vote in Reno coming to vote here. I think that was really important for her.”
Nevada made political news for other reasons this last weekend before the election: a protester at a Donald Trump rally in Reno was mistaken for an assassin by the candidate’s campaign. The state was on the political map thanks to a last-minute surge in Latinxs voting for Hillary Clinton, which may be a significant factor in Election Day’s outcome, given that Nevada is one of a handful of swing states this year.
“Having a voice is so important. That’s what Native people need.”- Dashina Greene
Here at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation, and at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony down the road, the stakes feel high for Native American voters who have been fighting to be able to cast their votes today.
According to an analysis from Native American voting rights non-profit Four Directions, there are approximately 55,028 voting age Native American people in Nevada, from 27 different tribes. That’s up from 36,364 voting age people in 2010.
The tribe, along with the nearby Walker River Paiute Tribe, and with the help of Four Directions, sued the state of Nevada on Sept. 7 to establish early voting and Election Day voting booths on their reservations.
In early October, federal judge Miranda Du ruled in favor of the tribes: she found that asking Native American voters to drive nearly 100 miles round-trip to vote in person placed an “undue burden” on them. She issued a temporary injunction requiring the state to provide early voting and Election Day booths on both reservations.
“The court acknowledges the substantial costs that injunctive relief places upon the counties, especially at this late hour,” she wrote in her ruling. “It is difficult, however, to balance a financial and logistical hardship with a burden on constitutional rights.”
Bret Healy, a consultant who works with Four Directions and on the lawsuit, told me it was a historic win not only because of its significance for Native Americans in Nevada, but also because it could set a precedent for other minority voters disenfranchised by their remote locations.
Nine other tribes in Nevada subsequently requested Barabara Cegavski, Nevada’s Secretary of State, to provide them with polling places on their reservations or on Native-owned properties for urban tribes, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Native advocates say that even though there are polling stations in nearby Reno, Native voters can be deterred from voting if they’re not able to do so in a place that’s culturally sensitive and feels welcoming to them.
“If it’s three white men at the desk, there’s more than distance at play there,” said Healy.
Their requests were denied by Cegavski, who said their petitions came too close to the opening of early voting. Healy said that having the stations on the two reservations involved in the lawsuit has already proven that they significantly improve voter turnout.
At Pyramid Lake over the past two weeks of early voting, turnout has increased since the 2012 election, when there were no early voting booths on Native land. Data from the Nevada Secretary of State’s office shows that for the Nixon precinct in 2012, just 16 early votes were cast. This year, at the end of the day on Friday, 125 early votes had been cast.
“If it’s three white men at the desk, there’s more than distance at play there”- Bret Healy
Nationally, this might be the most politically active that Native Americans have been in recent history: in this election, the BBC reports, eight Native American congressional candidates are running, and more than 90 Native Americans running for state offices.