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US judge sides with Nevada tribes in voting rights case

RENO — Two Native American tribes in Nevada have won an emergency court order in a federal lawsuit accusing the Republican secretary of state and two counties of discriminating against them under the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du issued a temporary injunction in Reno late Friday requiring the establishment of satellite polling places on two northern Nevada reservations ahead of next month’s election in the Western battleground state.

The Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute tribes say their members are being denied equal access to the polls as a result of the long distances some must travel to vote early or cast ballots on Election Day.

Du said they’ve proven they’ll suffer irreparable harm if she doesn’t intervene with the election less than five weeks away.

“The court finds that the public interest is served by a preliminary injunction,” she wrote in her 20-page ruling issued shortly after 5 p.m.

The legal battle is the latest in a series of similar cases arguing violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Arizona, Utah, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas.

Like most minorities, Native Americans in general are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. They say many tribal members are mired in poverty and other socio-economic conditions that make it more difficult for them to travel off the reservations to vote.

Nevada is considered a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election. A tight contest for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid also has the potential to determine majority control of the U.S. Senate.

The tribes in Nevada’s Washoe and Mineral counties had asked the judge in the lawsuit filed Sept. 7 to order relief in three different categories — on-site voter registration, early voting and in-person voting on Election Day.

Du denied the request for an injunction in regard to the establishment of on-site voter registration at either reservation.

But she ordered polling sites be set up for early voting at both, and for Election Day voting in Nixon on the Pyramid Lake reservation 40 miles northwest of Reno. The Walker River tribe in rural Mineral County already provides for Election Day voting on the reservation in Schurz, where the early-voting option will be added under the judge’s order.

The counties had argued the sudden change would present a huge, costly technical challenge at such a late date and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske argues she has no authority to intervene.

“The court acknowledges the substantial costs that injunctive relief places upon the counties, especially at this late hour,” Du wrote Friday.

“It is difficult, however, to balance a financial and logistical hardship with a burden on constitutional rights,” she said.

Some members of the Pyramid Lake tribe living in Washoe County northwest of Reno say they currently must drive 96 miles roundtrip to register to vote or cast ballots in person. The lawsuit says that’s more than twice as far as mostly white 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 argued during a weeklong hearing earlier this week the tribal members who don’t want to drive that far can still vote by mail or on the internet.

They said white voters in isolated rural areas face the same travel challenges as the tribes. They say that’s especially true in Washoe County, which covers 6,500 square miles stretching to the Oregon line — an area three times the size of the state of Delaware.

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