For some tribe members in Nevada, hurdles to voting remain

A poster hangs on a door at the Moapa-Paiute Community Center at the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Moapa on June 14, 2022.

A poster hangs on a door at the Moapa-Paiute Community Center at the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Moapa on June 14, 2022.
Wade Vandervort /Las Vegas Sun via AP

MOAPA VALLEY — A few election workers sat inside the Moapa Band of Paiutes tribal headquarters on June 14, waiting for residents to cast their ballots in the primary election.
Most of the nearly 200 voting headquarters throughout Clark County were buzzing with early-morning activity, and yet, the tribal office polling site on Lincoln Street was mostly quiet.
About one hour north of Las Vegas, the site mirrored other official polling stations in Clark County — albeit on a much smaller scale — with three booths, a stack of those "I Voted" stickers residents proudly wear after casting their ballot, and a box to drop off completed mail ballots.
One thing was consistently missing: Voters.
The site serves the tribal reservation, which has a population of about 300 to 350. An election worker said many people left for work early in the morning and might vote later.
Native Americans, a group whose voting rights historically were suppressed and whose access to voting continues to be a challenge, had the largest jump in voter turnout in 2020, according to Stacey Montooth, executive director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission.
Nevada Secretary of State and county offices don't track voter turnout by race or ethnicity.
Advocates say there is room for advancement as they push for easier access to the ballot for a group that has a population of 37,000 in Nevada, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
"The history has been so painful," E. Mercedes Krause, chair of the Nevada Native American Caucus, told the Las Vegas Sun. The organization works to get Native Americans elected to office.
"It's actually still carrying over today," she said. "That's why we are working so hard to organize."
Although the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, it was not until the Snyder Act of 1924 that Native Americans born in the U.S. were granted full U.S. citizenship, according to the Library of Congress.
Still, states attempted to suppress voting rights and it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Native Americans gained the right to vote in every state.
In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed voting measures like the automatic mail-in ballot system, which sent a mail-in ballot to every registered voter's address, and ballot harvesting, which allows a person to collect others' ballots and bring them to a ballot drop box.
"It was intended to keep people healthy and safe from this global crisis we were having," said Montooth, but "it absolutely opened up a whole new world for Native Americans to vote."
Montooth's 95-year-old grandmother, who lives in the central Nevada community of Schurz on the Walker River Paiute reservation, used to drive 90 miles both ways to cast her ballot. Now it's much easier for her, Montooth said.
While ballot harvesting has been under fire by some Republicans who say the practice should be a felony, the process has made it easier for tribal members to vote, Montooth said.
In Duck Valley in Northern Nevada, a couple of tribal members went door to door to pick up people's ballots and drop them off at the county seat. It was only 15 people, Montooth said, but that's 15 fewer people who had to drive nearly two hours.
For many tribes in Nevada, there is still not easy access to a polling location. While the Legislature made it so everyone could receive a ballot in the mail, many elderly residents prefer to vote the old-fashioned way.
At the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe along the Nevada-Oregon border, there are no polling locations on the reservation, tribal Chair Maxine Redstar said.
The nearest polling site is about 75 miles away in Winnemucca, and it takes about an hour and a half to get there.
A lot of the voters in the tribe are older, Redstar said, and they want to vote in person.
"They make that trip," she said. "For the older folks who cannot drive, they have extended family drive them. Otherwise, "then they just don't go vote."
Vonnie Snooks, administrative assistant for the Yerington Paiute Tribe in western Nevada, said there are no polling sites on the reservation for the primary, but the tribe is working to get one for November's general election. The closest place to vote is about seven to 10 miles away, Snooks said.
But tribal members did not receive mail-in ballots for the primary election and the tribe coordinated rides for anyone wanting to vote, she said.
Getting residents motivated to vote is another challenge, especially because some Indigenous people do not participate in elections because their tribes have their own government.
"The outside doesn't really affect the inside, and I rarely leave," said Darleen Etter, a member of the Moapa Band of Paiutes who has lived on the reservation most of her life.
Etter is not interested in politics and said it is boring, although she was considering voting in the primary.
Etter voted in 2020 to support Judge Gregor Mill, the Moapa Valley District Court judge, who is a family friend, she said. But she said the experience wasn't great as the election workers couldn't find her information and it was a hassle.
The Nevada Native Caucus works to build Native voter participation and by making sure everyone knows that tribal identification is accepted to vote, Krause said.
It also works to ensure safeguards are in place against voter intimidation and getting community workers to get involved as poll workers.
The organization has also been getting the word out to tribes that they can request early-voting ballot drop-off boxes and same-day voting ballot drop boxes, Krause said.
The No. 1 factor for getting out the Native vote, Krause said, is to have Indigenous people on the ballot. There are four Indigenous people, including Krause, who were on the ballot for the primary. Krause, a Democrat, was running in Congressional District 2. Candidates who are able to touch on issues important to Indigenous people can also help increase voter turnout, Krause said.
The Indigenous Futures Survey of 2022 showed that the top two issues for the Native American community are caring for tribal elders and improving mental health, Krause said.
The survey, which was completed by 6,460 Indigenous people, found that 31% felt depressed and 63% felt stressed.
Expanded broadband, education, water rights and land encroachment from urban sprawl and the military, environmental protection, and mining reforms are also important to Indigenous people, Krause said.
Companies proposing a project often say they consulted with tribes, but the Nevada Native American Caucus wants to see a shift from "consult" to "consent," giving tribes a greater voice in the project.
"It's more like, you know, they're coming in just basically reporting, telling tribes this is what's going to happen," Krause said.
Marlin Dawahoya, a descendant of the Moapa Band of Paiutes who grew up on the reservation, wants a candidate who will solve the homelessness problem. He wants the government to help people get back on track and provide them with food and housing.
June 14, Dawahoya got to pick someone who could solve those problems. It was his first time voting, saying he researched the candidates — regardless of party affiliation — who are honest and transparent.
"(This) is something that I've been looking forward to," he said.

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