About five hours from Las Vegas, at the northernmost tip of Nye County, lies the remote reservation of the Yomba Shoshone tribe, who recently had to go to great lengths to vote at the 2022 Midterms.
Accessed by occasionally treacherous dirt roads, the reserve, with a population of about 100 – depending on the season – includes tribal headquarters, a community center, homes, and a gas station.
Tribe members have to travel about 150 miles into the town of Fallon to get groceries, and their children travel about 35 miles each way to attend school in the small unincorporated town of Gabbs.
“If you don’t have a good car, reliable vehicle, or phone out there, you really don’t have access to anything,” Tribal Administrator Janet Weed said.
The tribe has had trouble participating in elections in the past due to unreliable and patchy access to postal services. In the last presidential election in 2020, some members of the tribe went on horseback to collect ballots for the people, and then Weed and another member personally delivered them in Tonopah, which was a “wild ride,” Weed said.
For the 2022 midterm election, the tribe requested an in-person polling location in Nye County, which Nevada law requires to comply with the request. But with the transfer of district clerks, there was some confusion and the tribe had almost no easy way to vote.
The Yomba Shoshone tribe sent an inquiry to the Nye County Administrator’s Office on July 29 to find a site to vote on Election Day. On August 1, then-case officer Sandra Merlino confirmed that she had received the request and would bring it to the attention of the new case officer when he got started. But the clerk’s office was also confused as to which jurisdiction the tribe was in, falsely claiming it was in Lander and not Nye County.
On October 17, Weed reached out again for an update on the polling location for the tribe, and new county clerk Mark Kampf informed her that she had missed the deadline to apply for a site for the 2022 election, but he had would like to help the tribe in future elections, according to emails provided to the review journal.
When the district learned that the tribe had indeed filed the application on time, Kampf pulled everything together on November 4 and arranged for a polling station to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day
“I’m so excited that Nye County came through,” Weed said.
Once the plan was in place, it worked well, Weed said, adding that it was the first time members of the tribe had voted and registered. Two poll workers from Pahrump drove up the mountains and through a snowstorm, set up the polling stations and stayed all day, and the tribe provided them with food.
Nye County released information about the polling site, describing it as being on Newe Road in the Reese River Valley in northern Nye County and that the parish building had a blue roof and was adjacent to tribal headquarters. It encouraged members of the tribe to help spread the word about the place.
“We also operate a one-day polling station at every election for the Duckwater Shoshone tribe in Nye County that was held on October 25. The county looks forward to providing the same for the Yomba Shoshone for future elections,” Arnold Knightly, the county’s public information officer, said in an email.
Kampf declined to take a call from the review journal because it was his day off.
Bret Healy, an advisor to Four Directions Native Vote, a Native-led group that is pushing for equality at the ballot box across Indian country and has sued Nevada and several counties for election violations, championed and settled things with the tribe District.
“It came together the way it should have,” Healy said, but “it’s not quite the same because they weren’t able to make sure everyone knew about it.” A total of 10 people voted at the polling station, and 12 more voted by post.
“We are just grateful that we were allowed to participate. We’re grateful to Brett Healy and his team,” Weed said, adding that they made breakfast burritos and brought out tribal members. “You strengthened us”
Nye County Commissioner Bruce Jabbour “came through” for the tribe, Weed said, adding that when he found out about the problem he was rushed to fix it and knew exactly where the tribe was.
“They showed the right first steps,” Healy said, adding he didn’t have a lot of confidence Nye County would work to rectify the mistake. “This is the first step towards equality and that is to be commended.”
“We certainly give the Nye County clerk credit for taking action when they became aware of this, but the reality is there should be a place for early voting at all times,” Healy said.
The Nye County problem, though resolved, highlighted voting barriers that had existed for tribal communities since Native Americans were guaranteed the right to vote in 1924, Healy said.
Only recently have some of those barriers been broken down, Healy said. In previous fights to improve voting booth access, the state or county said it was a choice to live so rural or that people could vote by mail.
But postal systems are not the same between rural and urban areas, and people shouldn’t be penalized for living on tribal lands given to them after the government took their original lands, Healy said.
Some of these post offices were established before 1924 and before Native Americans had the right to vote, Healy said.
Only 35 percent of reserved homes have a home mail system, said Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada, and most locals use PO Boxes, some of which may be far from their actual homes.
Another obstacle facing Native Americans is registration to vote. While tribal IDs are accepted, Patterson has heard complaints about the online registry not accepting their tribal IDs. Some people aren’t included in the state’s automatic voting system because they may not interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Patterson said.
Disorganization in employee offices can create problems for tribal nations, Patterson said.
“It feels backward that the tribes have to go through the counties rather than the state of Nevada itself,” Patterson said, as some counties are friendlier with tribes than other counties.
It should be just as easy to vote in rural northern Nye County as it is in Incline Village in Lake Tahoe or in urban centers in Las Vegas, Healy said. Even if small tribes have only about 100 people, it shouldn’t matter how many people live in an area in determining whether or not they should be given equal access to the voting booth, he said.
“The burden on the voter is what the metric should be, not the burden on the county to ensure equal access,” Healy said, adding that the Yomba Shoshone tribe did not have access to equal voting. If equal, it would have requested early voting and the same hours as other polling stations in the county.
“We’d hope Nye County would do better next time and do better without someone going in there and pushing them,” Healy said, “that they reach out to the tribes on their own and make sure they have access.” ”
There is still more work to be done
Both Nye County and the Yomba Shoshone tribe need to improve their outreach and visibility work, Weed said. She would like to see more visits by county officials and efforts to encourage the tribe’s participation in government. In other counties, candidates running for office speak to larger tribes, who then donate to their campaigns, but Yomba is small and can’t afford to donate to campaigns, Weed said.
In the last legislature, great strides have been made in expanding voting access for Native Americans, Patterson said, for example by not having tribes apply for a polling site year after year and making that request permanent.
“This last election showed that we have a lot more to go for every Nevadan,” Patterson said.
Patterson would like to see more legislation expanding access to Native Americans in the next legislative session, but she cautions lawmakers to be aware of tribal sovereignty and differences between tribes. Not every tribe needs a polling station on every reservation, as some tribes are already close to a site that has been used for years.
“It is important that tribes are consulted with their needs. I would like to see a better consultation process with the officials and the tribes. I know it’s difficult because rural counties also have limited resources,” Patterson said. “The fact is, our people deserve as much access to a voting booth as any other rural member of the state.”
Automated voter registration was also expanded in the last legislative session by India’s health services, which many Native Americans use, Patterson said.
“It’s the best way to reach local voters through this agency. I hope Nevada and IHS will work together to complete this program,” Patterson said.
Work also needs to be done to improve Native American enthusiasm for the election because “there is an apathy throughout Indian Country,” Patterson said.
For the Yomba Shoshone tribe, there’s a feeling among members that their votes don’t matter, Weed said, and she’s working to educate the tribe about why they should vote.
“It is important that our people vote. … We elect the people who make those policies,” Weed said, adding that tribal members are in a sense “dual citizens” — citizens of both their tribe and the United States.
“Although this is not a system created by us or for us, we still need to participate in this system to spread our ideas,” Patterson said.