Does a long drive to a ballot box constitute illegal voter discrimination?
That's the heart of a lawsuit by the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute Tribes against Washoe County, Mineral County, and the Nevada secretary of State. The tribes claim that the counties have restricted voting access for members of the two native American tribes by failing to provide a nearby polling place.
To solve the problem, they are proposing that the state provide satellite polling centers on the reservations as well as in-person voter registration and early voting options for residents of the reservations. The state has not yet responded to the lawsuit.
"It's unequal access to the ballot box, and that's illegal and unconstitutional in the United States," Bret Healy, a consultant working on behalf of the tribal members, told the Reno, Nev., local NBC station.
The approximately 800 members of the Walker River Tribe have to travel 35 miles to the nearest polling center, and the 1,700 Pyramid Lake Tribe members would have to travel even farther – a problem that non-Native residents of Washoe and Mineral Counties do not face.
"Mineral County has 12 out of 14 days to [vote] and we only have one,” Bobby D. Sanchez, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, tells the Monitor. "There is always the argument that we can do it by mail, but how reliable is the mail system? Especially on the tribal reservations and especially in rural areas it is not very convenient and it is not very reliable."
The lawsuit claims that this violates the US Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965:
Due to socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, homelessness, and lack of reliable public and private transportation, and due to the history of racial discrimination and hostility towards tribal members, the significantly greater distance required for them to reach the voting sites will make it substantially more difficult, if not impossible, for them to take advantage of the convenience and benefits of in-person registration, in-person early voting, and election day in-person voting, relative to Anglo residents of Washoe and Mineral County.
The lack of transportation is particularly challenging for the elders of the tribe, says Mr. Sanchez, as they cannot travel the 70-mile, round-trip journey to the nearest polls. With a polling spot on the reservation, he says, the community could easily work together to overcome transportation issues.
The reservations are already prepared to open voting polls, he says, with more than enough trained volunteers.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute tribes say they reached out to the counties to request a discussion of additional polling centers, but were given a flat no.
In response, Washoe County officials have stated that factors such as cost and voting population go into the registrar’s decision on where to put polling centers. "The Registrar’s plan for the General Election remains in place and her decision regarding this matter is final," said officials in a statement.
Still, Sanchez is optimistic, he tells the Monitor.
"We already have the manpower, we have willing able bodies that are willing to run the voting and are already trained. It would not have been a major thing."
Since the US Supreme Court struck down struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, 17 states have introduced new voting restriction laws, and lawsuits over Native American voting rights have become more common.
“[Native American] voters are more vulnerable today than they were before the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013,” Pratt Wiley, head of voter protection issues at the Democratic Party in Washington, told Reuters.
Since 2012, the number of polling centers have drastically decreased in some counties and states and new voter ID laws have gone into effect, both of which can make it more difficult for native people to vote. Plagued by unemployment and poverty rates much higher than the rest of the country, native Americans often have difficulty affording voter ID cards and getting to the polls. One lawsuit noted that in Alaska, voting materials were not translated into tribal languages.
Although the native population is increasing at a higher rate than the national population, native Americans have some of the lowest voter turnout of any ethnic group in the country.
"It all stems from that equality that we are not receiving," Sanchez tells the Monitor. "We just want to make sure that our voices are heard and our votes are counted because they are important, not only to us here but to the country."
Material from Reuters contributed to this report.