The last few elections marked several firsts for Native Americans in Nevada.
For the first time, approximately 1,150 Native Americans residing at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony near Reno voted in the 2018 election at a polling place on their reservation. That spared them the approximately 70-mile round-trip journey they previously took to get to the nearest polling place.
Two years earlier — less than a month before the 2016 presidential election — a federal judge ruled that Nevada was required to open early polling locations on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Mineral County and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation northeast of Reno. And for the first time in history, Native Americans at Pyramid Lake could also vote close to home on Election Day, rather than at a polling place nearly 50 miles away for some residents.
Although the Nevada Secretary of State and county offices don’t track voter turnout by race or ethnicity, Native American voting activists reported an average turnout increase of 43 percent in Nevada precincts with high Native American populations in 2018, thanks to these victories and other recent campaigns.
“We felt really good for a first-time neighborhood polling station,” said Stacey Montooth, a spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, estimating that turnout was significantly higher for Native Americans living on the reservation in 2018 compared with 2016 and 2014.
But the state still has a way to go to ensure all Native Americans have equal access to the polls, organizers say. In 2020, organizers plan to continue voting campaigns started in 2016 and 2018 for Native Americans in Nevada, with a concerted focus on voter registration, said OJ Semans, executive director of the national Native American voting rights organization Four Directions.
With an estimated Native American population of more than 51,800, Nevada is one of seven states in which Four Directions will work to increase Native voter turnout in 2020, along with Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina.
Research suggests that Native Americans nationwide vote at lower rates than other groups, although a 2014 study in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal found that this historic voter turnout gap was shrinking. Nonetheless, voting rights advocates say that new voter ID laws, such as a 2017 North Dakota law requiring voters to bring identification containing a valid street address to the polls, make it harder for Native Americans to vote.
Nevada doesn’t have such a restrictive voter ID law in place, and the Nevada Legislature has shown support for Native voting rights issues, said Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
But the state does have an unusual requirement when it comes to voter registration: Anyone who isn’t employed by a voter registration agency or a county clerk and who assists another person with a registration form must include their own name and address on the form. Failure to comply with this step is a felony.
“It scares people,” said Elveda Martinez, a member of the Walker River Paiute who led get-out-the-vote efforts on the reservation in 2018.
Semans agrees that the requirement can deter Native and non-Native volunteers from assisting an elderly person, someone who isn’t proficient in English or anyone else with a voter registration form. “And then once they sign it, they’re putting themselves under the scrutiny of the Secretary of State’s Office,” he added. “It puts a spotlight on individuals that shouldn’t even be a part of any of this.”
Ahead of the 2020 election, Four Directions plans to work with local Native American leaders across Nevada to further grow voter turnout and registration, which may include advocating for a revision to the felony statute. A spokesperson from the Secretary of State’s Office said the statute was established in 1993 as part of an election reform bill.
“We are not sure why this specific provision with a criminal penalty was included,” Jennifer Russell, public information officer for Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, wrote in an email.
While the statute troubles some Native voting rights activists, most say that geographic barriers are bigger obstacles to higher voter turnout for Nevada’s Native Americans. This issue is most obvious in rural areas, but it also impacts the more than 26,000 Native Americans in Clark County, home to the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Semans said.
For example, even though Native Americans living in urban areas may live closer to polling places by distance than their rural counterparts, they sometimes have no other way of getting to the poll than taking a lengthy bus ride. And long lines at urban polling places can dissuade working voters.
Because other voters, particularly other voters of color, living in urban areas may experience similar voting obstacles, Semans said that get-out-the-vote strategies for Native Americans in Las Vegas have focused and will continue to focus on collaborating with other historically disenfranchised groups.
“One thing we know about being in Indian Country is that if it’s happening to us, it’s happening to other people of color,” he said.
Patrick Nerranjo, a student resource coordinator at UNLV and member of the Santa Clara Pueblo of New Mexico, helped lead voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in Clark County in 2018 with Four Directions. Looking ahead to 2020, Nerranjo said that educating Native Americans about issues that may impact them and creating a cohesive movement for urban Native Americans in southern Nevada could increase turnout and political engagement.
“I think what’s missing from the Vegas community is a larger collective venue that speaks to the urban Indian identity in this region,” he said.
In both urban and rural areas, Native American leaders have also found that getting tribal members involved in the election process, especially recruiting Native volunteers at polling locations, encourages more Native voters to cast their ballots. In Martinez’s experience, it is not uncommon for Native voters, especially older voters, to feel intimidated at polling places.
Visiting a polling place that is on Native land and that is staffed by Native volunteers and poll workers, she said, helps them feel more comfortable voting. At Walker River where Martinez has lived all her life, tribal members have a good working relationship with County Clerks that has enabled them to do this.
But not all of the 27 federally recognized tribes in Nevada have the same type of relationship with county officials, she said. And some in the most rural areas are still traveling long distances to faraway polling places, something Four Directions hopes to address in consultation with the tribes ahead of 2020.
“Things are really looking up, but we still need to do more,” Martinez said.