- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) - 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.”

The suit filed Sept. 7 is the latest in a series brought by Native American tribes challenging access to the polls in a number of mostly western states, including Arizona, Utah, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas.

Du peppered both sides with a series of questions Tuesday about their take on the legal standards that are evolving in those cases.

She said she found “very helpful” the “statement of interest” Justice Department lawyers filed late Monday explaining their view of the proper balancing test, including criticism of what they said were previous “misstatements” by the state and counties.

Du said she disagreed with Cegavske’s position she has no power to force the counties to act.

“She has the authority to ensure compliance with federal law,” the judge said. But she also said the temporary injunction the tribes seek is a “pretty drastic” remedy.

Nevada’s Republican attorney general wrote in defense of Cegavske’s opposition to the lawsuit last week that the smaller, rural Mineral County especially will “likely suffer financial and staff impacts that it cannot afford in these pressing times of a presidential election.”

“While it may be somewhat inconvenient for residents of the Indian communities … to travel to a place where they can register to vote and vote in person, it is more than a matter of inconvenience for the local elections officials there,” senior deputy Attorney General Lori M. Story wrote on behalf of Attorney General Paul Laxalt.

“This is a hotly contested and unique presidential election which has put voters and candidates on edge, bringing challenges and questions that might otherwise not be present in a general election and taking staff time and resources to resolve,” she said.

Justice Department lawyers said in their filing they are not taking sides, but want to make clear that the state and counties have “inaccurately” stated the legal standard used to judge voting rights violations. They said the U.S. government has a “substantial interest” in the “proper interpretation and uniform enforcement” of the 1965 law nationwide.

“Defendants suggest that access to in-person early voting and in-person voter registration opportunities are merely a ‘voting convenience’” and therefore not protected by the law, wrote Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Gupta said other misstatements include claims that the tribes must prove “outright denials of the ability to vote or participate” and “an inability to elect candidates of their choice.”

“These arguments are without merit and should be rejected,” Gupta wrote.

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