Maria Martinez, a 22-year-old member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada, was for months deeply conflicted about whether she would even vote in the presidential election.
“I just feel like if I do vote, it’s not really going anywhere because the Electoral College is just going to choose anyway,” she said. “They don’t take the people’s votes seriously. They already know what they’re going to do. To me it seems like a waste, getting my hopes up for no reason.”
She’s well aware of what Native Americans have had to go through to gain their rights in a country whose ideals of equality excluded many groups from its very founding.“They fought hard. Why should we stop now?” she said.
Maria has ultimately decided to vote — her first time ever — but she’s still not entirely sure it will matter. And her uncertainty about the power of her own vote is in clear contrast to the outlook of some of her elders, including her aunt, Elveda Martinez, a water resources coordinator for her tribe who works with the Nevada Native Vote Project to expand voter access.
Elveda, 61, believes in the value of the Native vote. She’s spent decades making sure others believe in it, too, traveling across the some 325,000 sprawling acres of the Walker River Indian Reservation, about two hours southeast of Reno, to get out the vote. Being in Nevada, she knows its residents could have a big say in who gets to be the next president.
“We do know that our votes matter,” she said. “We can help a person win or lose.”
Nevada has been a swing state for decades. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won by just 2.4% — about 27,202 votes. Native Americans from Nevada’s 27 tribes account for about 3% of the state’s voting-age population, according to the National Congress of American Indians. That’s 60,000 potential voters. It’s unclear how many are registered to vote, and how many will vote, but the state is competitive enough that any small difference could matter in the outcome.
The pandemic has devastated much of Nevada’s economy. As the virus spread, tribal governments, already scrambling to plug a shortage in personal protective equipment and contend with limited access to healthcare facilities, closed their reservations to the public. That cut off a critical source of income for businesses and residents — who, like people on many reservations, already lived below the poverty line.
In the four years that she has been a registered voter, Maria has never really cared for elections. She didn’t vote in 2016. This year, she’s unhappy that the two-party system is forcing her to choose between two candidates she dislikes. Neither President Donald Trump nor former vice president Joe Biden has impressed her, though she’s especially turned off by Trump’s attacks on people of color.
“Why do I only have to have two options?” she asked.
Even if she did choose between them, she doesn’t think her vote will matter. Just look at what happened in 2016, she said, when Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots but Trump still won the Electoral College.
Most of Maria’s friends are also undecided. They either won’t vote, she said, or they are still uncertain about whom to vote for.
As an undecided voter, she occupies a rare spot in the voting pool. Polls show that most people have already made up their minds by now. The number of undecided voters this year is smaller than it has been in election years past — and the first presidential debate, a chance for candidates to win over those who are undecided, did little to influence people.
In the 20-something years that Elveda has been registering new voters on the reservation, she has never seen voters so steadfast in their support for either candidate. She believes that moving the needle on turnout — especially in Nevada and especially with young Native American voters like her niece — is crucial.
A registered Democrat, she pointed to the role that the Walker River Paiute Tribe played in Sen. Harry Reid’s 1998 reelection fight against then-representative John Ensign, which Reid won by just 428 votes, the closest margin in Nevada’s history.
“We always told him that we helped him win because he got over 200 voters here on our reservation,” she said. “We always told him, ‘If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have won.’”
Elveda is hoping that young people like her niece will exercise their hard-won voting rights despite feeling disillusioned with the Electoral College and the candidates they’re faced with.
“I said, ‘What do you want, Maria? What do you want to see for our reservation, for our country?’” Elveda said, recalling one of their conversations. “There’s a lot of people that have that mindset — they don’t like what’s happening right now with the presidential election.”
Both Maria and Elveda expressed disgust for the overtly racist way Trump has talked about Native Americans and other people of color.
Maria said she thought Trump calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” was “really insulting to everybody.”
“I don’t like the way he talks about other races and thinking that other races are below the white race. I don’t appreciate that in any kind of way, being a person of color,” she said.
Elveda said, “I’m not going to vote for Trump, because he’s a racist person, and it’s terrible what he’s doing now.”
But for Maria, that alone is not enough to convince her to vote for Biden. And though Elveda is certain she’s backing Biden come November, she’s not so much voting for Biden as she is voting against Trump.
Maria said she gives Trump credit for some initiatives, and she’s not entirely convinced by anything she’s seen from the Biden campaign beyond his association with the Obama administration.
A Biden campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News they partner with the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus, which is part of the Nevada state Democratic Party, on outreach and include Native American voices in some campaign events. The Trump campaign did not respond to questions about how it is reaching out to Native American voters in Nevada and other states.
The Biden campaign released its tribal nations plan last week, 25 days before Election Day. It reinstates some initiatives that Trump has abandoned, including hosting the White House Tribal Nations Conference. It also goes further to propose addressing healthcare disparities, restoring tribal lands, appointing Native Americans to high-level administration positions, and ensuring federal funding meets the government’s treaty obligations. Maria said she had heard of Biden’s plan but had not looked into its specifics yet.
Trump, meanwhile, has a strained relationship with Native Americans, despite claiming his administration has improved “the lives of Native American families and tribes more than any administration has done by far.”
As president, Trump has greenlit legislation benefiting Indigenous groups that had bipartisan support in Congress and set up a task force to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women — a huge crisis in Indian Country. But Trump has made offensive gestures toward Native Americans, including calling Warren “Pocahontas” and deriding sports teams removing Native American slurs from their names as “politically correct.” He has poured resources into fighting tribes who are trying to block pipeline construction through their land, rolled back key protections for public lands, and desecrated a sacred burial ground to build his border wall.
When Trump signed into law a coronavirus relief bill in March, a number of tribal governments were left hanging for weeks while a lawsuit played out over whether funds earmarked for tribes could be allocated to for-profit Native American corporations.
“Native people are just not getting respect from the Trump administration,” Elveda said. To her, the administration’s big budget cut proposals to tribal programs have further damaged an already tense relationship between Indian Country and the federal government. She pointed out that his campaign has not met with tribes to hear them out.
Trump also did not show up at nonpartisan Native American presidential forums in January, which a number of Democratic presidential candidates appeared at. Biden did not attend in person, but he delivered a brief speech to guests via video.
But Maria praised Trump for setting up a task force for missing and murdered Indigenous women, and she believes Trump and the Republicans’ assertions that they will protect people with preexisting conditions.
On the other hand, she thinks Biden will have a handle on jobs and the economy. His association with the Obama administration, which had a better relationship with tribal governments than the Trump administration, also earned him points with Maria and her aunt.
To Elveda, the contrast between the candidates on Native issues is clear: Biden has a plan for tribal nations. His campaign staffers have reached out to and met with tribes. At the very least, she said, he is showing respect and paying attention to tribal issues.
“But Trump doesn’t have a Native platform,” Elveda said, “and he doesn’t seem to care about that.”
“Biden’s not a real strong candidate, you know. He’s really not,” she said. But Elveda does think the Democratic ticket is stronger with Sen. Kamala Harris. “That’s a big deal. She’s a woman of color.”
Biden was far from her first choice; Elveda and her sister were big supporters of billionaire Tom Steyer, whose team, she said, “really took the time” to meet Native Americans in Nevada. “They met with the people. They provided a meal. They sat down and talked to us. It’s like they were really concerned.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders handily won 46.8% of the vote in the state’s Democratic caucus. Steyer came in fifth in the state but first in Mineral County, where the Walker River Indian Reservation is.
Had Sanders been the nominee, Elveda believes the general election would be a slam dunk for Democrats. She described the Democratic Party as “controlling” in deciding the outcome of the 2020 primary, a repeat of 2016.
But, she said, “here we are right now. And we have to vote for Biden, and we have to get rid of Trump.”
Elveda is driven by centuries of hardships that Native Americans have gone through before securing their rights, and the challenges they still face today. Native Americans only gained voting rights in all 50 states in 1962 — 58 years ago. Because of that, she said, “I want everybody to get involved in the voting process, no matter what party they become a part of.”
Native voters on reservations still face a litany of challenges to make it to the polls. Some of that is due to restrictive voting laws, like North Dakota’s voter ID law and Montana’s restriction of mail-in ballot collections in rural areas, which critics have said amount to blatant voter suppression.
Others are more systemic in nature. Many people who live on reservations are on remote, rural land. Often, they lack clean running water and internet access. Today, 1 in 3 Native Americans live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is consistently higher than that of the rest of the country, especially on reservations. Many Native Americans have serious health issues — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic, which left millions of people jobless and threatened the well-being of reservations that rely on the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.
The state is adapting to some of the more recent challenges to voting.
Nevada is one of a handful of states that have adopted universal mail-in voting during the pandemic, which means every registered voter will receive an official ballot in the mail without having to request it — a system that Trump and Republicans have falsely claimed will lead to widespread voter fraud. And since the pandemic was declared in March, the Nevada Native Vote Project, unable to do voter outreach on the ground, now does a lot of that work via video conferences.
A legal win in 2016 helped lay the foundation for increased voting access on the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe this year: The two tribes won a lawsuit against the state of Nevada to establish early in-person voting in Schurz, a town on the Walker River Indian Reservation, and early voting and an Election Day polling site in Nixon, a town on the Pyramid Lake Reservation.
These victories are not taken lightly by the older citizens in the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Elveda said. She’s optimistic they’ll vote despite the added safety concerns during the pandemic.
“Our old people here are still our biggest voters in any election — primaries, whatever,” she said. “I think it’s because the older Natives, they remember how hard it was to fight for the right to vote.”
But the pandemic has emphasized the need to protect older people, who represent a connection to tribal history and traditions. Leaving the house, even for voting, now presents an added risk.
Janet Davis, a tribal council member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, whose reservation is a 30-minute drive from Reno, said that “a lot of people lack the transportation.”
“They may not move around as well. They may need help coming to the polls,” Davis said.
“Because of the pandemic, they may be reluctant to come to the polling site — even to drop off the ballot,” she added.
Although Maria remains conflicted about whether her vote will count in what she called a “rigged system,” she is making an effort to get people in her tribe engaged with the election. She runs the “Walker River Paiute Tribe Voting” Facebook page, a resource for tribal members, and the more she hears people talk about voting, the more hopeful she is that Native American voters as a group can make a difference in Nevada.
“I want them to know that they’re going to be known and heard. I think it does have a big impact on what’s going on,” she said. “But me, personally, there’s a little voice. … I don’t know.”