Court ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada

Courtesy of Tom Rodgers

Native Americans in Nevada will have greater voting access next month than ever before, boosting the chances that Democrats retain a key Senate seat and capture the state’s six electoral votes in the presidential election. 

A federal court last week ruled in favor of tribes after they challenged the state of Nevada under the Voting Rights Act. Chairman Vinton Hawley of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Chairman Bobby D. Sanchez of the Walker River Paiute Tribe spearheaded the legal challenge, claiming they did not have equal access to vote after requests for additional polling stations had been denied.

“We chose Nevada about a year ago,” said lobbyist Tom Rodgers, founder and president of Carlyle Consulting, who has worked on the case on a pro bono basis.

“We chose it because of the presidential race implications, control of the Senate implications,” he said, also noting that Nevada residents had some of the most intense fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. 

He worked with the tribal leaders and three military veterans from their communities — Ralph Burns, Robert James and Johnny Williams Jr. — and OJ Semans and Bret Healy of a voting rights consultancy called Four Directions.

In general, Native Americans vote for the Democratic Party; turnout in Nevada is expected to be the deciding factor in multiple races up and down the ballot.

Rodgers, who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, is not new to this type of fight.

In 2014, he shepherded a similar lawsuit in Montana that resulted in an agreement to set up satellite offices on tribal reservations for in-person voting. He continues to work to expand polling access in that state. 

On Friday, Judge Miranda Du of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ruled that officials in Mineral and Washoe counties would have to set up additional in-person early-voting sites and in-person Election Day polling stations on the tribes’ reservations.

The rural, impoverished tribes would have otherwise had to travel anywhere from 32 miles to 70 miles, round trip, in order to vote — a trip not required by non-Native neighbors.

“The secretary of state implies that disparities in welfare between Native Americans and other Nevadans are particularly a result of the choice to live on remote tribal reservations,” wrote Du, an Obama administration appointee. “This argument, which assumes that the geography of the tribal reservations is ahistorical and apolitical, ignores a long and well documented history.”

“The geographic isolation of tribal members is not an accident or a choice, it is the clear product of ‘social and historical conditions,’ ” she stated. “In this instance, it is clear that geographic isolation works in tandem with the placement of early voting polling locations to further isolate the [tribes] from the political process.”

The ruling cites Professor Daniel Craig McCool from the University of Utah, who compiled research that supports the “intuitive notion” that the more a person has to travel to vote, the less likely he or she is to do so.

Rodgers points out that many of the tribes’ members do not have reliable transportation. Sanchez has said that mail service is also spotty in the most rural areas.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe is located in Mineral County, a rural and sparsely populated area. The tribe’s reservation is located north of Hawthorne, the only city in Mineral County with an in-person voting and registration site. The only town on the reservation, Schurz, is located about 35 miles from Hawthorne.

Hawthorne is majority white, with a 6.7 percent unemployment rate; 4.1 percent of its residents make less than $10,000 annually. Schurz, meanwhile, has an unemployment rate of more than 35 percent. About 25 percent of those living in Schurz make less than $10,000 per year.

The counties replied to the suit by saying that their resources had already been stretched too thin. 

According to Mineral County officials, providing more in-person voter registration and early-voting sites would cost upward of $4,777, about one-third of its overall election budget. 

The defendants argued the tribes had waited too long in the election cycle to bring their complaint, court documents say. Tribes countered that the counties had taken too long to respond to a request for more access.

The suit, officially filed in September, came after election officials declined to add more polling stations. 

It is unclear if the Nevada counties will appeal last week’s decision. Such a motion would go to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has historically been supportive of Indian tribes.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is retiring at the end of this Congress, and the race for his seat could decide control of the Senate. Polls show Republican Rep. Joe Heck having a slight advantage over Democratic challenger Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s attorney general. 

Over the last few decades, there have been many close Senate races. Reid won reelection by 401 votes in 1998; former Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) won an election in 2002 by fewer than 550 votes. In the 2006 elections, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) defeated incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R) by 3,562 votes, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) won his seat in 2008 by just more than 300 votes.

The presidential race is extremely close in Nevada, with polls showing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with a narrow lead over her GOP rival, Donald Trump. The open-seat race to replace Heck in the House is also viewed as a toss-up. 

While last week’s court ruling only covers two tribes in Nevada’s Indian country — with an estimated total population of 3,500 people — it’s being used as a way to push for expanding voting availability for eight others, including in the state’s Reno and Las Vegas areas, which make up more than 30,000 voting-age Native Americans alone.

There are roughly 55,000
voting-age Native Americans in the state, according to research by Healy at Four Directions.

Rodgers and his team are planning to play offense in the coming weeks.

“We got the decision,” he said. “Now we’re going to put it on steroids.”

The lawsuit in Montana spurred the Justice Department to draft a legislative proposal on voting rights. 

Earlier this year, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “I am calling on Congress to help remove the significant and unnecessary barriers that for too long have confronted American Indians and Alaska natives attempting to cast their ballots.”

A similar bill, which would make aspects of the Montana ruling apply to tribal reservations nationwide, was subsequently introduced in the upper chamber. 

Tester, Franken and Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) proposed the Native American Voting Rights Act last July, but it has not been taken up by the Judiciary Committee.

Rodgers said that, unless federal legislation is signed into law, he and his team will be going county by county, state by state.

“We will secure what we can here, but we’re also going to take this an additional step and we will be back in Nevada and other states in 2018 and 2020 until there’s full equality.” 

Tags Al Franken Donald Trump Harry Reid Heidi Heitkamp Hillary Clinton Jon Tester Tim Johnson Tom Udall
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