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Tribes view ballot collection as essential in Indian Country

NIXON – Many older people living on the massive Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation in northern Nevada used to depend on the tribe’s senior services van to get essential resources before the coronavirus pandemic brought that all to a halt.

Tribal officials are now worried about how elders and others without cars will get to the post office to return ballots prior to Election Day.

“The distance has been a barrier for our people to vote,” tribal council member Janet Davis said outside the post office in Nixon, not far from the beautiful body of water that gives the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe its name. “We have elders that might not be able to move around much, those that might be afraid of the pandemic, people who are disabled and people that don’t have transportation.”

To solve this new issue, a recent Nevada law will allow residents to fill out their ballots and have someone else return them to the post office on their behalf.

Officials see ballot collection as a potential way to increase historically low Native American voter turnout. They are working to overturn bans on the practice in several states, including Arizona and Montana, as more move towards mail-in voting because of the coronavirus. It’s become a hot issue in a tumultuous election year, with President Donald Trump declaring without evidence that mail-in voting will lead to fraud.

Opponents argue that so-called “ballot harvesting” allows groups to deploy volunteers and collect ballots on a mass scale. They worry about the potential for a scenario similar to what happened two years ago in North Carolina, where a Republican political operative is accused of altering incomplete ballots.

Tribes claim the negative impact of limited ballot assistance on reservations is often absent from the debate. Native Americans have a far lower voter turnout rate than any other group. They face less-reliable mail service due to the remoteness of tribal lands and frequently travel long distances to reach polling places or a post office to return a mail-in ballot. It has only become more difficult with services scaled back.

The Trump campaign sued Nevada after the Democratic Legislature enacted a law allowing mail-in ballots to all active voters and to lift limits on who can collect ballots for others. It is now a felony in Nevada not to return a ballot when one has been entrusted to. The president claimed the law compromises election security, but a federal judge dismissed the allegations, saying the campaign didn’t demonstrate a single way in which it would be harmed.

“It’s just the case that in the regular course of their lives, Native Americans pick up and drop off mail for each other,” said an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “It’s a way people cut down the cost and burden of getting their mail in the rural places they live.”

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation covers over 742 square miles north of Reno. Residents are primarily spread across three towns — Wadsworth, Nixon and Sutcliffe. These towns are an average of 30 miles apart.

On a reservation closed to outsiders to prevent the spread of the virus, the Postal Service only currently delivers mail in one town. Homes in Wadsworth and Nixon rely on P.O. boxes at their post office. Locals say the mail is infrequent and unreliable.

That’s true on many tribal lands, including the Navajo Nation, where voters recently lost a lawsuit seeking an extra 10 days past Election Day to count mail-in ballots to protect against post office delays.

In Nevada, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal members can also cast ballots in person at tribal offices in Nixon after the tribe sued Nevada in 2016, saying people were denied equal access to the polls as a result of the remoteness of their homes. But they still must find a way to Nixon.

For those who don’t trust the mail to arrive on time, “there are people who will be willing to say, ‘If you vote, I’ll make sure your ballot gets to Elko,’” one resident said.

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