Many of the over 1 million Native Americans living on reservations do not have reasonable voting access. Some have to travel tens of miles, sometimes more than 100 miles, to vote, when most people live a few miles from a polling station. Add to that longstanding barriers to Native people voting in many states. Several tribes have been fighting back in the courts to establish satellite offices that would allow people on reservations to have convenient access to early voting. This month, a big win was notched in Nevada that will help ensure a fair vote, just in time for an Election Day that has both control of the White House and the Senate on the line.
During September 2016, the Native American voting rights organization Four Directions Inc., working with the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Pyramid Lake and the Walker River Paiute Tribes and their members, filed a federal voting rights complaint (Sanchez vs Cegavske) against the State of Nevada, and Mineral and Washoe Counties, for denying Tribal members an equal right to vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On October 4th 2016 in the District of Nevada Federal Court (within the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) in Reno Nevada, Honorable Judge Miranda Du held a preliminary injunction hearing on the Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by plaintiffs.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest Brief on behalf of the plaintiffs on the eve of the hearing. This DOJ brief cited prior cases involving voter denial violations under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These cases included Brooks vs Gant where Oglala Sioux Tribal members sued South Dakota Secretary of State Gant, Wandering Medicine vs McCulloch where Northern Cheyenne, Crow Nation, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine (Fort Belknap Indian Community) Tribal members sued Montana Secretary of State McCulloch, and Poor Bear vs Jackson County where Oglala Sioux Tribal members sued Jackson County, South Dakota. Four Directions Inc., was involved in each of these cases and in each case defendants were required to establish in-person satellite offices on the Pine Ridge, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations.
On October 7th 2016, Honorable Judge Miranda Du issued a historic order granting the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute Plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, and directed the State and the Counties to have in-person satellite offices for early voting on both reservations. This order will result in increased participation in electoral process for Tribal members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute Tribes, with Tribal members having 14 days of early voting similar to Anglo voters in Nevada.
With this current ruling Four Directions Inc., has now enabled South Dakota Tribes with access to 5 in-person on-reservation satellite voting offices, Montana Tribes with access to 13 in-person on reservation satellite voting, and Nevada Tribes with access to 2 in-person on reservation satellite voting offices.
It has been Four Directions’ goal to use the extremes in Indian Country to highlight the inequalities of all protected minority classes of citizens to participate in the electoral process. We have been working the last 12 years to establish a common sense standard that Tribal members, as a protected class of voters under the Voting Rights Act, must have equal access to the ballot box. The decision by Honorable Judge Du has brought this goal into clear focus.
The preliminary injunction issued by Judge Du is powerful for many reasons. Many will understandably focus on the short-term politics; with the presidential and Senate races in Nevada seen as close and potentially pivotal to the overall outcome, Nevada’s Native Americans will finally be able to fully participate in such a momentous democratic decision. But the implications go beyond this November.
The District Court is within the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals covering these important states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. An overwhelming majority of federally recognized Tribes are in the Ninth Circuit. Judge Du’s order opens the door for hundreds of thousands of Native voters to participate in federal, state, and local elections on an equal basis with Anglo voters by utilizing in-person satellite voting offices located on Tribal lands.
Honorable Judge Du’s Order also provides a basis for establishing in-person satellite voting offices in areas serving other protected class minority voters in the Ninth Circuit living in these states. Establishing these satellite offices will provide equal access for other minority voters.
What started out as fighting for and winning equal access for Native American voters is now an extraordinary opportunity for Four Directions, Native Organizers Alliance, and People’s Action to work toward the establishment of equal in-person voting access for minority voters by hundreds of thousands of voters over the next few election cycles.
Oliver (OJ) & Barb Semans are Co-Directors of Four Directions Inc., based on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. OJ sits on the Native Organizers Alliance Advisory Board – an affiliate of People’s Action. OJ is also a board member of People’s Action.