With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Nevadans have already been voting early in record numbers.
Part of that is the state’s new law that sends mail-in ballots to every active, registered voter.
That doesn’t always work for many Native American voters in the state. A new nonprofit called the Nevada Native Vote Project has been working to change that.
The husband and wife team of Brian and Teresa Melendez are coordinators with the project.
Brian Melendez said one of the main missions of the project is to improve infrastructure for voting in tribal communities.
He said many Native Americans are involved in their own tribal governments but there is often no connection between the tribal governments and state and local leaders, which run elections.
"If every individual tribe has a way to go from their tribal communities and the ways in which they do things to working with county clerks office to get the vote out all the way to the end of election that's great," he said, "But from what we know, there is not a standardized process in place."
He said on the state level there is not a system work with Nevada's tribes.
Besides an overall system of cooperation, the physical ballot boxes are often not close to many tribal communities and rural areas in general.
Ethan Doig is the strategy coordinator for the project. He said some Native people have to drive two to three hours to cast a ballot.
The Nevada Native Vote Project has been pushing the Secretary of State and county clerk offices to make those ballot boxes more accessible for everyone.
Teresa Melendez said some county clerks, like those in Humboldt County, have been very accomodating and worked with tribal leaders to set up a dropoff box for ballots in McDermmit, which is closer to the reservation than Winnemucca.
However, Elko County, for instance, has told them it is not possible to place a ballot dropoff box closer to the Owyhee Reservation.
Brian Melendez said some officials are not cooperative for a simple reason.
"I absolutely think that's a long running course of historical racism, institutional racism, that has happened in the state," he said, "They may not actually have a law or regulation or policy stating why they can't do it. They just don't like Indians."
He said his group is trying to work like a bridge between tribal leaders and local officials to try bring down some of the barriers to voting.
"In some of this stuff we're finding, it really is a person behind the desk that can make a difference for hundreds if not thousands of people," he said.
Doig noted hundreds of eligible voters live on the Owyhee Reservation and that could make a difference for a local election.
"If you've ever worked in local elections before, that's enough to swing any election," he said,
Overall, there are 27 unique tribes and colonies in the state, Doig said, "but only about a third of those tribes and colonies have adequate access to voting infrastructure."
He said the state and federal governments are responsible for improving that access but they're not doing it.
In addition to not have adequate access to voting, Doig said campaigns don't do enough outreach to tribal communities.
"The onus of responsibility to engage with candidates, educate their voters and support the electoral process is put on tribal governments and the individual voters themselves," he said, "We do not see enough from national to state-level candidates engaging the tribal voting bloc."
Besides improving infrastructure, Teresa Melendez said the project is working on improving the visibility of Native voters.
"I know in the past that candidates and elected officials haven't recognized the voting power of Native people here in the state," she said, "In addition to building infrastructure and communicating with tribal governments and Secretary of State and county clerks offices, we're also working to create visibility for Native voters in the state."
She said many Native voters know how their grandparents or even parents were blocked from voting, which is why it is important for them to cast a ballot.
"It can be inspiring for folks," she said, "It's just another reminder that this wasn't a system that was designed for our communities, or we were intentionally kept from participation. There is a lot of community building and healing that needs to happen with indigenous people and our state and federal government. Those conversations bled into the area of voter election, voter protection, voter registration."
From CapRadio: Native Americans Struggle To Be Heard As Early Voting Begins
Brian Melendez, Coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project; Teresa Melendez, Coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project; Ethan Doig, Strategy Coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project
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