RENO, Nev. — Two Native American tribes in Nevada won an emergency court order late Friday in a federal lawsuit accusing the Republican secretary of state and two counties of discriminating against them under the Voting Rights Act.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du issued a temporary injunction in Reno requiring the establishment of satellite polling places on two northern Nevada reservations ahead of next month’s election in the Western battleground state.
The Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute tribes say their members are being denied equal access to the polls due to long distances some must travel to vote early or cast ballots on Election Day.
Du said they’ve proven they’ll suffer irreparable harm if she doesn’t intervene with the election less than five weeks away.
“The court finds that the public interest is served by a preliminary injunction,” she wrote in her 20-page ruling issued shortly after 5 p.m.
Lawyers for Washoe County in Reno said they would consider an appeal.
The legal battle is the latest in a series of cases arguing violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Arizona, Utah, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas.
Like most minorities, Native Americans in general are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. They say many tribal members are mired in poverty and other socio-economic conditions that make it more difficult for them to travel off the reservations to vote.
Nevada is considered a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election. A tight contest for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid also has the potential to determine majority control of the U.S. Senate.
The tribes in Nevada’s Washoe and Mineral counties asked in the Sept. 7 lawsuit for relief in three different categories — on-site voter registration, early voting and in-person voting on Election Day.
Du denied the request for an injunction in regard to the establishment of on-site voter registration at either reservation. She said all the individual plaintiffs in the case already are registered to vote so they cannot show any harm in that regard.
But she ordered polling sites be set up for early voting at both, and for Election Day voting in Nixon on the Pyramid Lake reservation northwest of Reno. The Walker River tribe in rural Mineral County already provides for Election Day voting on the reservation in Schurz, where the early-voting option will be added under the judge’s order.
The counties had argued the sudden change would present a huge, costly technical challenge at such a late date and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske argues she has no authority to intervene.
“The court acknowledges the substantial costs that injunctive relief places upon the counties, especially at this late hour,” Du wrote Friday.
“It is difficult, however, to balance a financial and logistical hardship with a burden on constitutional rights,” she said.
The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement Friday night the county’s previous decisions on the location of 22 satellite polling sites were based on “population, fairness and in accordance with controlling federal and state laws.”
“Nevertheless, the court’s order must be followed or appealed, and Washoe County will make that determination after having a full and thorough opportunity to review the court’s decision,” the statement said.
Some members of the Pyramid Lake tribe living in Washoe County say they currently must drive 96 miles roundtrip to register to vote or cast ballots in person. The lawsuit says that’s more than twice as far as mostly white voters 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 argued this week the tribal members who don’t want to drive that far can still vote by mail or online.
But Du said in Friday’s ruling the distance the tribal members must travel combined with the associated costs “bears more heavily” on them “especially given their relative difficulty in accessing transportation, affording travel, and experience (of) off-reservation discrimination and intimidation.”
She specifically cited a 2010 case in North Dakota, Spirit Lake Tribe v. Benson City, when Chief Judge Ralph Erickson concluded:
“There simply is no more essential duty of a democratic government than to provide open, fair elections that are accessible to all eligible voters … In a representative republic, the right of the people to elect their representatives is superior to concerns over the public purse.”