Nevadans can start casting their votes in person beginning Saturday at early voting locations across the state.
But for Native American voters, it can be a challenge just getting to the polls.
“There’s 27 unique tribes and colonies in the state of Nevada,” said Ethan Doig with the Nevada Native Vote Project, a nonprofit working to boost turnout in tribal communities. “About a third of those tribes and colonies ... have access to an in-person polling location and a ballot drop-off location. A third.”
He says that means some tribal voters have to drive up to 100 miles to cast their ballot.
In Nevada, tribal governments have to request state approval to set up their own voting locations — an extra step that county registrars don’t have to take.
“The county election official makes decisions about how many polling locations to establish and where to establish them,” Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley explained.
According to Doig, this is an unfair burden for reservations, whose sovereign status means they have a government-to-government relationship with state and federal officials.
“It’s disheartening to see the onus of responsibility being put on tribal governments and their communities,” he said.
According to the Nevada Native Vote Project, there are about 60,000 eligible Native American voters in the state — which could be enough to sway the final result in a hotly contested election year.
“Eventually, if they can activate that vote, a number like that can be important. Especially in more local elections,” said Fred Lokken, who heads the Political Science Department at Truckee Meadows Community College.
He’s been studying elections in Nevada for decades and says Native Americans could be an influential voting bloc in close state races, too. “We’ve seen some very close elections in the history of the state of Nevada,” Lokken said.
But barriers to Native voters don’t end with long distances to polling places — they’re also burdened by a history of voter disenfranchisement.
Native American voting rights weren’t recognized nationally until 1948, when a pair of court cases in New Mexico and Arizona overrode state laws blocking them from the polls. In Utah, their constitutional right to vote wasn’t recognized until 1962.
“This has been a disaffected voting population, nationally, forever,” Lokken said.
Doig also points to a more contemporary challenge facing tribal voters: Nevadans can’t register to vote online without state-issued identification. Many people living on reservations only have identification from their tribal governments.
And even though those documents can be used to register in person or by mail, Doig says there are cases where elections officials don’t accurately explain this to Native Americans trying to complete the process.
“When they call county clerks’ offices, they’re being told that if they do not have a Nevada state-issued drivers license or form of identification, that the deadline to have registered to vote was October 6,” he said.
Wayne Thorley with the Secretary of State’s office says Nevadans can register to vote up to and on Election Day, whether they have state identification or not.
“A tribal ID, under state law, can be used for any service that we use regular drivers licenses,” he said.
He added that voters who think they’ve been given inaccurate information by county officials can contact the Secretary of State’s office by phone or email.
“They can absolutely report that to our office,” he said. “We can communicate with the county and let them know if they’re incorrectly applying a law.”
But Doig also points to a critical lack of understanding about voting behavior in tribal communities.
“One of the biggest problems that we see with our Native voters is a lack of voter statistics,” he said. “We see those kind of statistics for every other community across the country and across the state.”
As a result, Doig thinks political campaigns haven’t been doing enough to reach out to tribal communities, because they don’t believe those efforts would translate into greater support at the ballot box.
As a nonprofit, his group doesn’t advocate for any particular party or issue, except increasing turnout among tribal voters — including those who don’t live on reservations.
“We do not feel that getting out the Native vote particularly swings it one way or another,” he said. “It’s a matter of who shows up to communicate with those voters that will make the difference.”
Voters can reach the Nevada Secretary of State’s office at 775-684-5705 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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