On the eve of the presidential election, Nevada is embroiled in a shameful controversy. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Walker Lake Paiute Tribe have filed a lawsuit against several state officials, including Secretary of State Barbara Cegavsky, over limited accessibility to voter registration and polling locations for those that reside on tribal lands.
According to the text of the lawsuit, “At issue in this case is Defendants’ failure to establish a site for in-person voter registration, an in-person early voting site, and an Election Day site … on two reservations, thereby making voting less available to members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe … and the Walker River Paiute Tribe.”
This is a case of voter disenfranchisement, and all Nevadans should be outraged that state officials have not only allowed it happen, but have refused to address it in a timely manner.
With these restrictions, those living on tribal lands would have to travel nearly 100 miles round trip to cast their vote on Nov. 8, according to the lawsuit. Given that Pew Research Center data found that the poverty rate for Native Americans was 29.1 percent in 2012, lengthy travel times are more than an inconvenience — they wholly detrimental to the ability of Native Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Nevada is not the first state to see its disenfranchisement of Natives litigated. Reuters reports that since 2013, “five federal lawsuits involving Native Americans have been filed.” These lawsuits addressed similar instances of disenfranchisement across the nation, from voter ID laws to ballots bereft of translations in Native languages that make it more difficult for the Native population to vote.
The catalyst, of course, is the unceremonious gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the Supreme Court. The Court’s 2013 decision struck Section 4 of the VRA, which subsequently allowed states to alter their election laws without federal approval. In the Court’s dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referenced “‘second-generation’ barriers” to voting that are employed to “reduce the impact of minority votes.”
These second-generation barriers are not overtly discriminatory, but therein lies their danger. Requiring some voters to travel unreasonable distances to simply cast their ballot may seem innocuous, but in reality is a policy that unfairly burdens one segment of Nevada’s population over others.
One often hears of election laws as targeting minorities in order to benefit a certain party. In states with large populations of African-American or Latino voters, who tend to favor Democrats, it’s easy to draw this conclusion. However, the current case in Nevada goes far beyond simple party politics and strikes at the heart of equality and justice.
The Native American population in Nevada rested at approximately 1.6 percent in 2012, according to Census data. While that 1.6 percent may, to some degree, influence the outcome of local or national elections, the effect of their vote is but one small detail of the larger issue — the continued oppression of a people that have been marginalized and mistreated by the American political system for centuries.
Nevada’s election laws are but one more link in the long chain of abuses endured by the Native American population. These communities have been subjected to injustices with lasting impacts, such that Pew finds Natives living in poverty and dropping out of high school at more than twice the rate of whites. In a recent op-ed published on Indian Country Today, President Barack Obama called these statistics a “moral call to action.”
That call is now being heard in Nevada, and it is the responsibility of our elected officials, political party leaders and fellow residents to heed it.
The editorial board can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.