Native Americans weren’t guaranteed the right to vote in the U.S. until 1924, but the struggle for voting rights has stretched on much longer, and the pandemic has only created additional barriers for tribes and worsened older ones in Nevada.
“It’s definitely exacerbated the issues much more than anybody had anticipated,” said Brian Melendez, Chair of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus.
As the coronavirus spread throughout the state, killing more than 1,000 Nevadans, a statewide initiative to vote by mail has been launched as a safer alternative to in-person voting. However, it isn’t a universal solution.
Tribal nations could be left behind in efforts to expand vote-by-mail, warn organizers for indigenous communities and Native American leaders.
Many reservations don’t assign traditional addresses, with named streets and numbered homes, making it difficult for tribal members to receive and return mailed ballots. Only 35 percent of all reservations and colonies in Nevada have home mail service. These nontraditional addresses mean that most tribal citizens do not receive mail directly to their houses but instead get it from a P.O. box often located in post offices several miles from their homes.
“A lot of times people think if you have a home you have a mailbox but that’s not the case for a lot of reservations,” said Teresa Melendez, who is married to Brian Melendez and vice chair of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus. “A lot of reservations you have to drive to get to a mailbox, so if you don’t have a car or you’re elderly and don’t drive it becomes difficult to get the mail. You have to rely on other people to help you get the mail or send mail.”
Lack of reliable public and private transportation on reservations means the significant distance Native American voters must travel to drop off a ballot is a huge barrier.
To better prepare for the upcoming general election during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nevada Legislature passed Assembly Bill 4, which contains critical voting provisions for Native American communities including the ability for some voters —particularly the elderly or people with disabilities —to request that someone else fill out and deliver their ballot in times of emergency, a practice Republicans repeatedly decry as “ballot harvesting.”
The Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus flatly dismisses those concerns, adding that the provision is more important than ever in order to protect Native voters.
“If you have a house full of eight or nine people living in one place it makes more sense for those individuals to vote together and then have one representative drop off ballots on behalf of all the people living in that space to reduce the risk of infection,” Brian Melendez said.
Multiple Nevada tribes have extended shelter-in-place orders due to climbing infection rates. Recent outbreaks have been reported to tribal health centers on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, which currently has 60 active cases and three deaths, and the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, which currently has 49 active cases.
“Right now it’s more important than ever to have that option just to keep our people safe,” said Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe which has had just one case of COVID-19 after instilling strict shelter-in-place measures. “Our biggest task at hand is protecting our people and making sure the exposure is eliminated.”
None of the approximate 1,200 tribal members who live on the Walker River Paiute reservation have residential mail service and must receive mail, including election mail, through P.O. Boxes, Torres said, adding that on the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation some residents have to drive up to 40 miles both ways to place a ballot in the mail.
Still, the ability to request that someone else fill out and hand in someone else’s ballot comes with heavy restrictions additional administrative hurdles
for family members returning a ballot. Those who assist a voter in marking or signing a ballot must submit a written statement to the county clerk failure to do so may result in criminal penalties.
“It feels like we keep being given hurdles” and officials are “waiting for us to do something wrong,” Teresa Melendez said. “You can have a polling location but fill out this form. The Secretary of State’s and the Registrar’s Office aren’t actively going out to the reservations and holding presentations and workshops or meeting with the tribal council about these policies.”
The caucus is launching an effort to inform tribal communities of their voting options in the upcoming election, hoping to make early voting locations available to all Nevada tribes, but the pandemic has complicated their efforts.
“The obvious obstacle in this particular moment is COVID,” Brain Melendez said. “It changed the ground game we would have had. Prior to COVID we would have been out in the community, we would have been knocking on doors and meeting with people face to face.”
Major obstacles to voting on reservations, including lack of direct mail service to residences, distant rural post offices, a lack of polling locations and ballot drop-off locations, and language and technological barriers have only increased during the pandemic.
Lack of access to polling locations on reservations has been a long-standing issue even before the pandemic. AB4 extended the deadline by which tribal governments can request separate early voting locations on reservations to Sept. 1 in light of the pandemic, but the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus argues the state’s failure to establish satellite offices free of a request has a significant impact on Native Americans voting power, and denies those living on reservations voting rights.
“It is not a standard practice across the United States for tribes to have to request a polling location. Nevada is 30 to 40 years behind on tribal rights compared to other states,” Teresa Melendez said. “We’d like to get to a point where there’s a collaboration and a partnership between tribes and election officials so that tribes are not constantly asking and asking to be seen and heard.”
Early voting locations on reservations in Nevada appeared for the first time only in 2016 after members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes filed suit against Nevada, and Washoe and Mineral counties for failing to provide adequate polling locations on their reservations.
A U.S district judge found that the lawsuit would likely succeed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and ordered additional early voting locations.
“The fact that we’re just having these conversations in 2020 is ridiculous,” Brian Melendez said.
Those clashes and other historical events have led many tribal members to distrust state and local government, he said, adding that bureaucratic hurdles have alienated tribes. Of the 27 federally recognized Indian tribes in Nevada only seven have requested a polling location on their reservation so far this year.
Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said despite additional hurdles brought on by COVID-19, tribes in Nevada have long overcome voting suppression in many forms.
“We have fought hard for our rights and we will continue to fight for our people,” Torres said