Nevada Billionaires Have Equal Rights—But Not Natives—Paiutes Charge

This article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in September 2016.

Nevada tribal members are effectively disenfranchised by the long distances they must travel to vote.
Chairmen Bobby Sanchez and Vinton Hawley, of the Walker River and Pyramid Lake Paiute tribes, respectively, are plaintiffs in a major new voting-rights lawsuit, filed in federal court in Nevada. They are joined by three military veterans from their communities: Ralph Burns, Robert James and Johnny Williams, Jr. “We know that these veterans have already paid for the equality we seek for all our people,” the two chairmen announced in a joint public statement.

The lawsuit follows the rejection of tribal requests to Nevada’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and two counties for full access to national elections, including reservation satellite offices for registration and early and Election Day voting. According to the plaintiffs, Walker River Paiute Tribe voters must currently travel 70-some miles round trip to register and early vote in the Mineral County seat, while Pyramid Lake voters have a 96-mile round trip to the Washoe County seat, along with limited Election Day voting.

The rejection “is an apparent effort to dilute Indian voting strength,” the plaintiffs allege. As such, they say, it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the U.S. and Nevada constitutions. Both tribal chairmen called for a Justice Department investigation.

Lawsuit defendants include Cegavske and county election officials. The county officials cited the difficulty of complying with the request in time for the election. “Their inconvenience has nothing to do with the voting rights of Native voters,” said OJ Semans, Rosebud Sioux director of Four Directions voting-rights group, which is assisting the plaintiffs.

A Four Directions consultant, Bret Healy, questioned the elections officials’ fiscal wisdom. Fulfilling Pyramid Lake’s request would cost about $4,000, and Walker River’s about $3,000, Healy estimated. In contrast, defending against a federal voting-rights suit can cost millions, Healy said.

Washoe County already has 22 early-voting locations, but has placed all of them in non-Native communities, noted University of Utah political science professor Daniel McCool in an expert report for the plaintiffs. This makes casting a ballot even easier for those who already have full access, he wrote: “I did not find any evidence that the county has ever provided early voting sites to the poorest [and most remote] people in the county—the Pyramid Lake Paiute.” Voting by mail is fraught with errors and not a viable alternative, according to McCool.

Some of Washoe County’s primarily white communities are exceptionally wealthy, with homes on Lake Tahoe that can cost many millions of dollars. “Tribal members, whose income may be less than one-one-hundredth of the Lake Tahoe billionaires’, travel long distances to vote in Nevada. That’s assuming they have a vehicle and gas money,” said Semans. “The burdens exacerbate the inequality.”

Native poverty and the state’s longtime violence and discrimination against tribal members provide a context for the suit that “is not a pretty history,” McCool added.

Separately from the lawsuit, Four Directions has charged that emails the organization received, along with conversations with county officials, indicate that the secretary of state and counties used a recent teleconference to “get on the same page,” as one official put it, and forestall Native equality. “If one county gave in, more would have to,” said Healy.

Not so, said the Secretary Cegavske’s public information officer, Kaitlin Barker: The teleconference to discuss the tribal requests was normal procedure, to “promote uniform application of federal and state election laws.” Because of the lawsuit, Barker said, the secretary of state’s office would not comment further.

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.