Nevada elections chief refuses to accommodate Native Americans who have to drive 200 miles to vote

She cited “practical hurdles and legal complexities.”

People wait in line for early voting Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. Nevadans don’t have to wait until Nov. 8 to cast their ballot because two weeks of early voting begins Saturday. CREDIT: AP Photo
People wait in line for early voting Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. Nevadans don’t have to wait until Nov. 8 to cast their ballot because two weeks of early voting begins Saturday. CREDIT: AP Photo

Nine Native American tribes asked the Nevada secretary of state last week to establish early voting locations on their reservations. They claimed the roughly 200 mile round-trip drive many of them have to make to vote early is a significant barrier to the ballot.

On Wednesday, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske said no.

“Given that your letter reached the Office of the Secretary of State less than 24 hours prior to the scheduled two week period for early voting, we regret that we are unable to accommodate your request,” she wrote in an October 26 letter to Vinton Hawley, the chairman of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada.

Cegavske added that she consulted with each of the seven county officials who would be impacted by the request and determined that it is too late to redistribute voting machines “because they are already in place and calibrated for use at their current early voting locations.” She also noted that “there is insufficient time” to recruit and train poll workers.

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Finally, she added, “there is still considerable legal uncertainty as to who would be authorized to investigate and prosecute potential election law violations occurring on sovereign tribal lands.”

Native Americans were granted the right to vote in U.S. elections in 1924. The state has already designated polling locations on many of the reservations for Election Day, so it’s unclear why the “legal uncertainty” question would prohibit Native Americans from being allowed to participate in Nevada’s early voting period, which started October 22.

Bret Healy, a consultant for Native voting rights group Four Directions, said he questions the so-called “practical hurdles and legal complexities” Cegavske says prevent her from accommodating the tribes’ request. He noted that in the past, it has taken her office less than 48 hours to arrange for additional polling locations to be added in rural parts of the state.

Earlier this month, a federal judge sided with Healy and two Native American tribes who each had to drive almost 100 miles round-trip in order to cast an early ballot. The judge ordered Cegavske’s office to open satellite voting locations on both reservations for Nevada’s early voting period.

After that ruling, nine other tribes not covered by the judge’s order asked Cegavske to make similar accommodations, given that many of their members live even further from the polls. The nine tribes include the Reno Sparks Indian Colony in Washoe County, the Yerington Paiutes in Lyon County, three tribes in Elko County, one in Humboldt County, one in Churchill County, one in Nye County, and one in Clark County.

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The tribes argue that the state is violating the Voting Rights Act by providing more opportunities for Anglo citizens to vote than for Native Americans. Healy said he sees clear political rationale behind the inequality, noting that Nevada is a swing state with tight races for both president and the senate.

“She happens to be a Tea Party Republican,” he said about Cegavske, who is a member of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and led the group’s Nevada chapter in 2012.

“It’s not unknown if you look at data at all that ‘those Indians, they vote the wrong way,’” he continued. “She would get, I’m sure, excoriated by her Republican colleagues if she would make it easier for a constituency that leans Democratic to vote.”