by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
WASHINGTON — Native Americans routinely face persistent and longstanding barriers to voting, but access is improving here in Nevada.
In a 54-page report released last week, the Biden administration detailed a number of issues tribal communities face when voting, as well as specific actions policy makers at the federal, state and local levels can take to eliminate those barriers.
The report was a result of an Interagency Steering Group on Native American Voting Rights created by executive order in March 2021, as part of an effort to expand voting access in underrepresented communities.
“For far too long, members of Tribal Nations and Native communities have faced unnecessary burdens when they attempt to exercise their sacred right to vote,” the report read.
Tribal nations and Native leaders from across the country, including the Southwest, provided recommendations to the report, according to the White House.
The report also notes that in the absence of federal action states have the power to pass legislation protecting Native American voting rights at the local level while maintaining pressure on Congress.
The report pointed to recent legislation enacted by Nevada as an example of successful state action taken to safeguard tribal voting.
In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill allowing tribes to request a polling site or ballot drop box on their reservation that would automatically return each election cycle. Prior to 2019, tribal governments in Nevada did not have the option to request a polling place. The regulated process also makes it more difficult for election officials to deny tribes requests for voter services.
The legislation to safeguard tribal voting in Nevada came after a successful lawsuit by citizens of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes in 2016 against Nevada and two counties for routinely denying the tribes early voting polling locations.
The location of polling places matters, say tribal leaders. After the litigation by the Walker River Paiute Tribe spurred polling sites on their reservation, Mineral County recorded its highest voter turnout at 80.74% in 2020.
Emergency pandemic voting accommodations in 2020, like universal mail in ballots and extensive drop boxes, were made available to Nevada tribes and further expanded voting access.
Native voters in Nevada had the highest turnout of all demographic groups in 2020 and turnout was up 25% from 2016, according to Megan Gall, a consultant specializing in voting rights.
“That is the largest increase of any subpopulation in the state of Nevada,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission and citizen of the Walker River Paiute Tribe “I think it is likely due to voter choice or the ability for our people to vote by whatever method they wanted: in person, early, by mail, or via drop boxes. This momentum will carry us into the next election.”
Since the 2020 election, the Nevada Indian Commission (NIC) has helped organize meetings specific to voting access for Nevada’s Tribal Nations and Urban Indians. The meetings included the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office Tribal Liaison and representatives from All Voting Is Local, Native American Rights Fund (NARF), Tribal Minds, Nevada Native Vote Project, and Native Voters Alliance Nevada.
All Voting is Local Nevada and the Native American Rights Fund have also since created a Nevada tribal leaders guide with step-by-step instructions on how to request voter services for their respective reservation or colony.
“We’ve partnered with advocates on the ground. We’re not doing this with a coalition of native lead organizations. We want to push our election officials to do the right thing when it comes to tribal nation voting access which hasn’t been done for decades in Nevada,” said Kerry Durmick, Nevada Director for All Voting is Local.
Location, location, location. And mail.
The groups focused on four major asks of the SOS Office: that a special process for requesting a polling place be created, that Tribal Identification Cards be accepted when registering to vote online, a public list of tribal polling locations, and training for voting officials on tribal voting rights.
“Given the low percentage of Native voter registration in the state, we hope to increase this number as all 27 Nations authorize IDs to their enrolled members. The vast majority of these IDs are an accepted form of ID in the state of Nevada,” Montooth said.
The Inter-Tribal Council passed a resolution to provide a sample ID to the NIC that will be shared with the SOS office, who will then share with county clerks.
“We want to make sure that our communities are informed about their right to request a polling location for Election Day and early vote and/or a drop box on their reservation, and this list will help provide outreach and oversight with county clerks,” Montooth said.
As of March, 11 of Nevada’s 27 federally recognized tribes have requested permanent polling locations on their respective reservations in order to increase voting access for their citizens.
The Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe is one of the latest nations to request voting services on their reservation for the first time, said tribal councilman Philip Johnson. The tribe has requested both an Election Day polling location and drop box in time for the next general election.
“We are requesting these services because a lot of tribal members live out of town and it’s easier for them to access a polling location that is closer to their homes,” said Johnson. “Also, we will look to combat voter intimidation and suppression that turns our tribal members off from voting.”
The new process to request polling locations has been easy to navigate, said Johnson, adding that election officials in Churchill County have been working closely with the tribe to set up a viable polling location.
“We are grateful for everyone’s contributions so our tribal members’ voices can be heard in this year’s General Election,” he added.
The White House report recommended other actions Nevada can take in order to eliminate all barriers to voting for Native Americans living in the state. In 2021, the Census Bureau determined that Nye County must take efforts to administer federal elections in the native Shoshone language because section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires counties whose voting-age population is more than 5% Native American to provide language assistance.
In the summer of 2020, Nevada lawmakers via a bill passed during a special session required all counties to switch to all-mail elections in response to the pandemic and widespread business closures. The following year, during the regular session, they made all-mail elections a permanent fixture for the state. The move was praised by many groups for expanding voter access but presented unique challenges for reservations. Many reservations don’t assign traditional addresses, with named streets and numbered homes, making it difficult for tribal members to receive and return mailed ballots.
Only 35% of all reservations and colonies in Nevada have home mail service. These nontraditional addresses mean that most tribal citizens do not receive mail directly to their houses but instead get it from a P.O. box – often located in post offices several miles from their homes.
Post offices also have limited supplies of P.O. boxes, and even when available, they may be too expensive or too far away to be useful, says the report. Additionally, staffing at post offices is often restricted, with some offices offering only limited hours or limited days of the week. For the Pyramid Lake lands in Nevada, tribal leaders noted that they had one post office – almost 60 miles from some parts of the tribal lands – that closed at 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and was closed on weekends.
Members of the Nevada Native Vote Project noted that polling places often required a three-hour round-trip journey from voters’ houses, according to the report. The White House report recommended the U.S. Postal Service consider adding routes and offices in areas serving Native communities.
“The NIC is confident that our other Tribal Nations will take advantage of outreach, support, and services in upcoming elections,” Montooth said.
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