Nye County will be the first and only county in the country to provide Shoshone language assistance with ballots. (Photo: Nevada Indian Commission)
Thanks to a decades-old amendment to the landmark Voting Rights Act, Clark County is federally required to provide ballots in Spanish and Tagalog.
Now Nye County will offer assistance in another non-English language: Shoshone.
Nye County will be the first and only county in the country to provide Shoshone language assistance — a traditionally non-written language that will require qualified interpreters at the polls going forward.
“There are a lot of barriers Native communities face, especially very rural ones,” said Allison Neswood, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “One of them is language access for tribal members who are not proficient in English.”
Local officials in any community with significant groups of non-English-proficient citizens are required to provide all election materials in that group’s language under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Census Bureau updates the list of jurisdictions every five years, using criteria based on American Community Survey data of voting-age citizens who have limited English proficiency, and of the percentage of adults with less than a fifth-grade education that exceeds the rate nationally.
New data from the Census Bureau in 2021 determined that Nye County will now be required to offer language assistance to the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe of the Duckwater Reservation, including Shoshone translation of all voting materials. Language assistance in the county will be required through at least the 2024 and 2026 elections.
Population growth and more accurate data reporting and collection among the Native population likely contributed to the increase in the documented Native population in Nye County, say Native organizations working in the state.
According to the Census Bureau, about 9.7 million people now identify as American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, up from 5.2 million counted in 2010.
“After the last Census we were excited to see that there were more jurisdictions that were required to make their jurisdictions available to Native language speakers including Nye County,” Neswood said.
Language access for the tribe is unlikely to sway elections — the reservation is home to less than 100 registered voters— but Neswood said their work is about ensuring that all Native voters can exercise their right to vote free of systemic barriers.
A few months ago, the Native American Rights Fund started working with Nye County election officials and tribal representatives on establishing a process for in-person translation at a polling site on the reservation in time for the general election in November.
One issue election officials and voting rights advocates face in Nye County is that, traditionally, Shoshone is a spoken language and does not have a written standard making translation of written voting materials difficult.
“Under the law, if a language is identified as historically unwritten… all of the information that is provided to English speaking voters needs to be provided orally,” Neswood said.
Nye County Clerk, Sandra Merlino, said so far one tribal elder has agreed to work as an interpreter for the election office and offer translation services to voters on the reservation.
“There really isn’t a program in place as of now, hopefully eventually there will be something,” Merlino said. “Right now it’s just a start.”
Voting rights advocates, however, say due to the tribes’ reliance on vote-by-mail, tribes also require more language assistance in addition to in-person translation, including an outreach campaign, public notices, voter information pamphlets and a help line.
The Native American Rights Fund has worked on other “complex translation work” in the past, including written voting materials for languages spoken by Alaska’s Native population like Inuit-Unangan and Na-Dene, both of which did not have a written version before the influence of non-Native Alaskans.
“There’s a complexity there but it is possible and it has been done,” Neswood said. “Both the country and tribe will need to troubleshoot and learn what methodology will work with this unique language.”
“There are still steps we hope to see,” Neswood said. “We are at the beginning stages of this work.”
Language assistance—guaranteed under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act since 1975—applies to places with a significant Asian American, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native voting age population where limited English proficiency criteria can be applied.
Studies show that language assistance and translated materials likely make it easier for populations that don’t speak English proficiently, or as a first language, to participate in elections.
But rural tribes in Nevada also face a number of other obstacles to voting access. Voter services (registration offices, ballot drop boxes, early voting sites, and Election Day polling places) are often located outside of tribal lands.
Before the 2020 general election, the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe did not have a polling location on their reservation, Merlino said. The nearest precinct to the reservation was over an hour away, meaning tribal members had to travel about 275 miles round-trip to cast either an in-person early ballot or an in-person Election Day ballot.
“It will take ongoing work to make sure traditional Native speakers—who have previously been left out— feel like this process is for them as well,” Neswood said, adding she is working with the tribe to secure a drop box for mail-in-ballots.
Prior to 2019, tribal governments in Nevada did not have the option to request a polling place. Legislation to safeguard tribal voting came only after citizens of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes successfully sued Nevada and two counties in 2016 for routinely denying the tribes early voting polling locations.
However, since enacting legislation in 2021 several more tribes in Nevada have requested permanent polling locations on their respective reservations in order to increase voting access for their citizens.
“I think there’s more advocacy for them,” Merlino said. “There’s people out there letting them know this is available.”
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