The Justice Department sided with two Nevada tribes’ interpretation of a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and a judge said she will issue a ruling Friday in the native Paitues’ legal battle with state and county officials over minority access to the polls. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du listened to arguments during a daylong hearing Tuesday in Reno on whether to grant the tribes’ request for an emergency order establishing satellite voting sites on their Pyramid Lake and Walker River reservations in northern Nevada’s high desert. The tribes 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. 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 nearly twice as far as 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 argue the tribal members who don’t want to drive that far to cast ballots in person can still vote by mail or on the internet. Their lawyers said Tuesday that white voters in isolated rural areas face the same travel challenges as the tribal members, especially in Washoe County, which covers 6,500 square miles stretching to the Oregon line — an area three times the size the state of Delaware.
“There’s no racial bias,” Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Michael Large said Tuesday. “This is pure geography.”
The counties say the sudden change would present a huge, costly technical challenge at such a late date and the state argues it has no authority to intervene. “Even if we must do this, we couldn’t functionally do it,” Large said. “It’s just a practical impossibility.”