Victory Lap for Paiutes and the Native Vote

These two articles first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in September and October 2016.
Milestone for Nevada Tribes — An emergency injunction will open early-voting offices on the Walker River and Pyramid Lake Paiute reservations, in Nevada. Plaintiffs, including tribal chairmen Bobby Sanchez (shown left) and Vinton Hawley, respectively, told the federal court that tribal members travel inordinate distances to register and vote, curtailing their access to the ballot box, while off-reservation communities have numerous nearby options.


A Department of Justice “Statement of Interest” backed these claims, saying they relied on “well-established precedent.” The judges decision clarified application of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, among other legal issues.

“Everyone is very excited and happy,” said lead plaintiff Sanchez, shown left, about reaction on Walker River, adding that arrangements for the early-voting offices were still under discussion. The emergency order did not increase registration access, as all of the plaintiffs were already registered voters.

Defendants included county officials who administer federal elections on the two reservations and Barbara Cegavske, Nevada’s secretary of state. Starting when the requests were made in August, they had named inconvenience and budget as reasons not to open the reservation offices.

Cegavske’s failed motion to dismiss the lawsuit went a step further and cited a psychological barrier: this year’s “hotly contested” election had “put voters and candidates on edge,” straining resources even more, she told the court. Defendants suggested considering better access in “future elections.”

“Our request imposed no major burdens, and we have people ready to help with whatever is necessary,” said Sanchez. “If the election officials walked a mile in our moccasins, they’d see what we want—equality. And if they really were in our shoes, they would have made the same request.”

Cegavske’s office said she would not appeal but would help the counties comply with the order as part of her commitment to voting rights. This is the latest of several recent Native-vote gains in North and South Dakota, Alaska, Montana and Utah.

Distances Pyramid Lake voters travel to register and vote.
Fighting to Vote in Nevada — Nevada is a swing state this November, with outsized influence on who will sit in the White House and which party will control the Senate. Meanwhile, polls show Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump a few percentage points apart there. One largely ignored and un-polled group could change that—if they get election offices in their communities.
Nevada’s Native voters travel as much as 200 miles round-trip from their reservations to register or vote in distant county seats. In August, tribes asked their counties and the Nevada secretary of state for satellite voting offices, but were rebuffed. As a consequence, five tribal members have filed a federal voting-rights lawsuit.
ICTMN spoke to plaintiff Vinton Hawley, who has been chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe since early 2015. The tribe has no registration or early voting and minimal Election Day voting on its reservation. It also overlaps Washoe County, Nevada, which news group Politicocalls a swing county in a swing state—one of few places in the nation with its thumb on the scales for Election 2016. Party registration there is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, reports Politico.Presidents Obama and Bush both carried the bellwether county.
Here’s what Chairman Hawley had to say.
Why this lawsuit now?
Nevada Native voters have never had anything like equal access to the ballot box. We chairpersons are in the process of learning, as well as educating tribal members, about early voting and our rights under the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. On reservations, we face barriers having to do with miles from the polls, while those of us who vote in cities face racially motivated problems and issues over IDs. We are not equal.
How did the state and counties respond to tribal requests for full election services?
Not a phone call, not even a conversation to see if we could work together—with tribes offering staffing and space for the polling place and negotiating the number of days for early voting, for example. They just turned us down, claiming there wasn’t enough time. There certainly was time for one phone call. I would have communicated, if I’d received a comparable request. So, we filed the lawsuit.
Do Pyramid Lake voters lean Democratic or Republican, when they do get to vote?
Generally, we vote Democratic, though an issue may come up that’ll mean we go Independent. I can’t speak for other tribes.
Did this prompt the Republican secretary of state to encourage the counties to turn down the tribes?
I couldn’t guess at her, or their, motives.
Is one of your goals affecting the election outcome in Washoe, and thus the White House and the Senate?
Election participation is our goal. It’s 2016, and we want the opportunity to vote.
C. Stephanie Woodard; photograph at top courtesy Bobby Sanchez; map courtesy the state of Nevada, with distance indications courtesy ICTMN.