Nearly a decade before former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada would become the powerful Democratic majority leader under President Obama, he won a tight reelection race against a Las Vegas Republican by a razor-thin margin of a few hundred votes. Elveda Martinez of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in western Nevada said Native voters were quick to remind Reid that their turnout was crucial to his win.
“And we always told him, ‘We put you in office,’” Martinez said in an interview with Truthout.
Reid listened and used his powers in Washington to secure crucial fresh water resources for a nearby lake that feeds the Walker River. Martinez is a water resources coordinator for the Walker River Reservation, but she said members of small tribal communities often wear many hats. Martinez is also a well-known voting rights and ballot access activist who works every election season to get out the vote in her community. A solid turnout of Native voters can have a big impact on elections in a key swing state with a population of only 3 million people.
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“We know we are important voters here in Nevada,” Martinez said. “We have 27 reservations and colonies throughout the state.”
Martinez said Native voters in Nevada voters traditionally lean Democratic, and although that is starting to change as more young people register as independents, many across the state will participate in the Democratic primary caucuses on Saturday. However, easy access to the ballot has not always been a guarantee for Native voters in Nevada, particularly for lower-income and elderly voters living in rural communities and remote areas.
In 2016, the Walker River Paiute (who also call themselves the Agai-Dicutta Band of Northern Paiute Nation) and the Pyramid Lake Paiute in northwest Nevada filed a federal voting rights lawsuit against Nevada’s secretary of state and county officials challenging voter disenfranchisement and discrimination. Members of both communities had been forced to drive over an hour to vote early, and some remote tribal members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute had traveled nearly 50 miles to the nearest precinct on Election Day. It was the latest in a series of tribal voting rights lawsuits filed across Western states.
Martinez said the Walker River Paiutes have long been fortunate enough to have a voting precinct located on their reservation, but anyone who wanted to vote early had to drive 70 miles round-trip to the county seat in Hawthorne. In the 2016 general election, 56 percent of Nevadans voted early, according to reports.
“We have always voted here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t really work to get our voters out,” Martinez said, adding that she and other volunteers knock on doors and help with voter registration.
However, tribal communities in other parts of the state did not have their own local precinct on Election Day, and those voters traveled long distances to the polls. In October 2016, a federal judge decided the Paiutes’s lawsuit would likely succeed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court ordered county officials to set up early voting sites on both reservations and open new Election Day precincts in more remote communities.
Nine additional tribes quickly requested new precincts and early voting sites, and last year state lawmakers made it easier for tribes to request new polling locations from county officials. Most of the requests have been met, according to local reports, and during the 2018 elections tribal communities such as the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony outside Reno had a polling location on their tribal lands for the first time. Native activists reported a 43 percent increase in voter turnout that year.
The changes came just in time for Democratic voters at the Walker River Reservation. Nevada held early voting for the Democratic caucuses for the first time this year. Martinez said she works with others in the community to organize rides to the polls for the elderly and voters with disabilities, and this year they didn’t have to drive all the way to Hawthorne to vote early. Martinez also works with the county clerk to staff polling locations with Native poll workers, which makes it more comfortable for local people to come out and vote.
“It’s a big change, and it all started because of our lawsuit that we won,” Martinez said.
Nevada is the first state with large populations of people of color to assign delegates in Democratic primary season, and although the media has focused largely on Latinx voters, candidates know the Native vote is also crucial. Martinez said Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both sent campaign teams to Walker River, and most recently Tom Steyer’s campaign visited to discuss climate change and other issues.
Martinez said climate change and health care are top issues on the Walker River Reservation, and local voters are backing several different candidates. The Affordable Care Act has had a big impact on health care access and is literally saving lives in a community where critical medical services in Reno are a 100-mile ambulance ride away. Martinez said she was originally all-in for Sanders, who supports a Medicare for All universal health care system, but she was impressed by a campaign event Warren surrogate and Native congresswoman Rep. Deb Haaland held with tribal leaders and Native youth from the Reno-Sparks Colony and remained undecided on Thursday.
Walker River voters always get “pumped up” during presidential election seasons, Martinez said, and she was looking forward to the local caucus on Saturday. Like Iowa, the Nevada caucuses are a social affair, with voters gathering in support of their favorite candidates in different sections of a common room.
“It’s been really fun here, because our people are really vocal, which is good,” Martinez said. “People are vocal about what they want and they will speak up, and I am seeing that more and more with Native people.”