Courtesy Four Directions
Federal voting-rights lawsuit plaintiff and registered voter Johnny Williams casts an early ballot at a just-opened office on his Walker River Paiute Tribe homeland.

Paiutes Triumph in Court—Early Voting ‘In Full Swing’ on Two Reservations

Stephanie Woodard

Updated on October 27, following the Nevada Secretary of State's response to the request for more tribal early voting.

Early voting is underway on the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute reservations, where tribal members sued in federal court for polling places on their homelands starting October 22. “We’re in full swing,” said Vinton Hawley, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “It’s been great. Tribal members are very enthusiastic. We have a voice. We’re involved.”

Pyramid Lake voters joined a flood of Nevadans casting a ballot during the state’s early-voting period. During the first two days of early voting at Pyramid Lake, turnout had already doubled that of the last presidential election in 2012, according to Hawley.

Meanwhile, at Walker River, in just the first two days of early voting, turnout nearly equaled 2012 totals, according to OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux director of Four Directions voting-rights group, which assisted with the lawsuit. Semans called this “empowering the people.”

As chairman of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Hawley has urged Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske to direct counties to open polling places for nine more tribes, including some where ballot boxes are 200-plus miles away, round trip.

Even when polls are nearby, counties typically make accessing their offices uncomfortable for Natives, according to testimony in the Paiute tribes’ federal lawsuit. To remove this barrier to equality, Hawley included in his request urban-Indian communities in Washoe and Clark counties.

Citing “insufficient time” to set up more early-voting places, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has announced that she is turning down Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s request for more tribal early-voting offices on additional reservations. Cegavske also revealed another concern that figured in her decision, “[T]here is considerable legal uncertainty as to who would be authorized to investigate and prosecute election law violations occurring on sovereign tribal lands.”

“I take offense,” said OJ Semans, of Four Directions. “This is no more than an outdated and racially charged attempt to insinuate that tribal voters are somehow lawless and beyond control. The Nevada Election Task Force is part of a coalition of state and federal authorities that can handle election problems, no matter where they occur.”

The lawsuit plaintiffs have asked the court to award them their legal fees, which would require the state and counties to pay a tab that already tops $100,000. “We warned them,” said Bret Healy, Four Directions consultant. “The offices cost a few thousand dollars each, while fighting against equal rights is very costly.”

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