Nye County chaos cut into Yomba Shoshone voting access
Yomba Shoshone Tribe administrator Janet Weed on Election Day with a cooler of burritos donated by community organizer and Navajo Nation citizen Beverly Harry. (Photo courtesy of Janet Weed)
Disorganization and miscommunication in Nye County following the appointment of election denier Mark Kampf as the county’s top election clerk resulted in a botched and chaotic election week for the Yomba Shoshone Tribe.
It wasn’t until the Friday before Election Day that Kampf agreed to establish a polling location on the tribe’s reservation, despite an administrative request by the tribe months prior.
A three day internet outage across the Yomba Shoshone Tribe reservation made it even more difficult to inform tribal citizens about the last minute voting Election Day location.
Nye County has faced lawsuits and fierce criticism on how election officials ran the 2022 general election. In August, longtime County Clerk Sam Merlino resigned after warning Nye county commissioners their plan to hand count paper ballots would lead to chaos. Kampf, who was elected to his first full term as clerk in last month’s election, had been appointed to the interim position after promising to enact hand counting ballots in the county.
Those efforts were followed by the county fumbling its statutory obligations to the tribe.
In July, Yomba Shoshone Tribe Chairman Wayne Dyer submitted a request to establish an Election Day polling location on the tribe’s reservation, a right the county is required to fulfill by law. By August 1, the Nye County Clerk’s Office confirmed by email they received the polling site request and would ensure the new clerk, Kampf, “is aware of this.”
However, during the changes to Nye County election staff and ballot counting methods that month, the tribe’s request was ignored.
In emails reviewed by the Current, Yomba Shoshone Tribal Administrator Janet Weed reached out to the county twice in mid-October regarding the Election Day polling location.
“We will be unable to establish a location for this election cycle,” Kampf replied in an email to the tribe on Oct. 20. “During my transition to Clerk, Sandra provided no mention of any discussions with your tribal representatives. However, I would be more than happy to work with you in the future to establish a polling location for the 2024 Primary and General Election.”
Despite a trail of emails and election forms proving the tribe submitted a request by the statutory deadline and were entitled to a polling site, the tribe was forced to seek out a consultant with Four Directions Native Vote, a voting rights group that successfully sued Nevada and several counties for election violations in the past.
Ultimately, Nye County relented and agreed to open a 12-hour Election Day polling place on the Yomba Shoshone Reservation. But voting rights advocates fear the short notice prevented voter drives needed to inform and turnout tribal citizens.
“Obviously, that’s not the same as having fully advertised it three months ago,” said Bret Healy, the consultant with Four Directions Native Vote who advocated for the tribe.
Election officials are responsible for keeping track of their paperwork and following the law, said Healy, adding that there are 27 federally recognized tribes in Nevada across its 17 counties.
“The Yomba stood on their demands for an Election Day location, and that’s a good thing,” Healy said. “We just hope other counties take heed of that, and quit pretending they don’t have to provide equal access.”
It was the first time citizens of the Yomba Shoshone Tribe could vote at a polling site in their own community. Many tribal members gathered at the polling site and were enthusiastic to vote, said tribal officials. Community volunteers donated and distributed burritos to voters on Election Day in celebration of the tribe’s victory.
Native American communities “gather to food as medicine,” said Weed, tribal administrator, in an email.
“For the future of voting on the Yomba Shoshone reservation, we need to provide more information about the structure of our Nevada legislation and the US government… However, we had the voting polls, which we are very grateful to have,” Weed said.
Without a polling location, citizens of the Yomba Shoshone Reservation would need to travel about two hours on poorly maintained dirt roads to cast a ballot. A lack of resources and infrastructure on reservations often makes voting difficult and inaccessible for tribal citizens.
Universal mail-in voting has been praised by voting groups in Nevada for expanding voter access, but it can also present unique challenges for reservations. Drop boxes and election offices can be located miles away from reservations. 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% 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.
The Yomba Shoshone Reservation sits at the northernmost point in Nye County, where citizens must travel across canyons to visit Gabbs, the nearest town. The area was pelted with wind and snow on Election Day, and reports of worsening weather conditions in Northern Nevada resulted in all State executive branches closing early.
“The two people that dedicated themselves to travel through the snow and then to maintain the poll from 7am to 7pm then drive over more snowy and icy roads to return home… should be greatly commended,” Weed said.
During the winter “it’s wet and slick as heck” said Healy. Public transportation isn’t available for tribal citizens and many lack personal transportation or resources to travel huge distances.
“Mother nature gets her say in these elections,” Healy said. “It’s not the same thing as going into the county seat, which is very well set up for the majority of the population.”
There is a long history of Native Americans being excluded from voting, starting with the U.S. government depriving them of citizenship until 1924. Laws that make voting harder often have a disproportionate impact on Native American voters.
Last year, the Nevada Legislature attempted to eliminate those barriers and passed a bill allowing tribes to request a polling site or ballot drop box on their reservation that would automatically return each election cycle. The regulated process is meant to make it more difficult for election officials to deny tribes requests for voter services, but smaller tribes—like the Yomba Shoshone—can still slip through the cracks in Nevada.
The Yomba Shoshone Tribe was not the only Native community Four Directions and Healy advocated for in Nevada.
In September, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation secured an Election Day ballot drop box and 36 hours of early voting, after the tribe filed a lawsuit against Elko County for limiting voting access on their reservation. Starting in 2024, the tribe will also get 12 days of early voting and a 12-hour polling site on Election Day under the settlement.
Before the lawsuit, Elko County only offered the tribe 8 hours of early voting on the reservation. Significantly less than the 108 hours of early voting, 12-hours of Election Day voting, and Election Day ballot drop box offered at the county seat of Tonopah.
“We are eternally grateful for Four Direction’s help in this historic lawsuit in which we increased access to the poll 5 times fold and starting in 2024, we will have equal access to the polls with the same days and hours as the good citizen living in the Elko County seat,” said Brian Mason, Chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, in a statement.
Without the polling site tribal citizens living on the Duckwater Shoshone Reservation would need to travel 275 miles round-trip to cast a ballot in-person.
In an email, Elko County Chief Deputy Clerk Brenda Rodrigues said the county was under the impression that the tribe had agreed to fewer days and hours for in-person voting. The county also said they could only offer the tribe 36 hours of in-person voting for the 2022 general election because they had difficulty finding poll workers on the reservation, lacked qualified election clerks to oversee the polling location, and did not have sufficient polling equipment for the tribe.
Healy argued the county should have been prepared to provide the tribe equal voting access long before the lawsuit and that the election should not have come as a surprise.
“There should not be denial of equal access to the election system on account of race. Just because you claim you’re not discriminatory in your intent, the actual facts are that if you’re not accounting for rural tribal members far from the county seat you’re not granting equal access,” said Healy.
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