RENO, Nev. — The Justice Department is siding with two Nevada tribes’ interpretation of a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act at issue in a legal battle with state and county officials over minority access to the polls.
Lawyers for the two Paiute tribes are scheduled to go before a federal judge in Reno Tuesday with their emergency request for a court order establishing satellite voting sites on their reservations before the November election.
They accuse Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, Washoe and Mineral counties of illegally denying tribe members voting access afforded to people in wealthier, mostly white neighborhoods.
The counties say the sudden change would cost too much, and the state argues it has no authority to intervene. But the Justice Department said in a new filing Monday all three appear to be confusing voting rights with “voting convenience.”
The suit filed Sept. 7 is the latest in a series of recent challenges brought by Native American tribes challenging access to the polls in mostly western states, including Utah, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du scheduled a hearing on the request for an emergency injunction for 9 a.m. Tuesday. It wasn’t clear when she would rule.
Members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe living in Washoe County say they must travel 96 miles roundtrip to register to vote or to cast ballots in person in Sparks. Members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in rural Mineral County say they have to go 70 miles roundtrip to Hawthorne.
The lawsuit says that’s twice as far as voters who live on Lake Tahoe’s affluent north shore would have to travel to vote if the county had not set up a satellite poll in upscale Incline Village.
The Nevada counties argue the tribal members who don’t want to drive two hours or more roundtrip to cast ballots in person can still vote by mail or on the internet.
Nevada’s Republican attorney general wrote in defense of Cegavske’s opposition to the lawsuit last week that the smaller, rural Mineral County especially will “likely suffer financial and staff impacts that it cannot afford in these pressing times of a presidential election.”
“While it may be somewhat inconvenient for residents of the Indian communities … to travel to a place where they can register to vote and vote in person, it is more than a matter of inconvenience for the local elections officials there,” senior deputy Attorney General Lori M. Story wrote on behalf of Attorney General Paul Laxalt.
“This is a hotly contested and unique presidential election which has put voters and candidates on edge, bringing challenges and questions that might otherwise not be present in a general election and taking staff time and resources to resolve,” she said.
Justice Department lawyers said Monday they are not taking sides, but want to make clear that the state and counties have “inaccurately” stated the legal standard used to judge voting rights violations. They said the U.S. government has a “substantial interest” in the “proper interpretation and uniform enforcement” of the 1965 law nationwide.
“Defendants suggest that access to in-person early voting and in-person voter registration opportunities are merely a ‘voting convenience'” and therefore not protected by the law, wrote Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Gupta said other misstatements include claims that the tribes must prove “outright denials of the ability to vote or participate” and “an inability to elect candidates of their choice.”
“These arguments are without merit and should be rejected,” Gupta wrote.