Unreliable internet continues to disenfranchise Indigenous voters • Nevada Current

Imagine being completely cut off from the world during a critical moment. You’re on a long flight with no Wi-Fi, anxiously wondering about an important family event. That feeling of helplessness and disconnection is what many Tribal members and rural communities experience daily due to the digital divide. Unlike the temporary inconvenience we might face, their lack of reliable internet access is a persistent barrier, impacting every aspect of life, including the freedom to vote.

Nevada’s Effective Absentee System for Elections (EASE) recently expanded to allow Tribal members of federally recognized Tribes or Bands residing on reservations or colonies to register to vote and cast their ballots using the electronic voting system. This system has been a vital tool for many Nevadans, including members of the armed services, their spouse and dependents, and Nevadans residing overseas. In 2021, EASE further expanded to include Nevadans with disabilities, a measure that passed the Nevada State Senate unanimously. Despite this progress, concerns about election security have surfaced, particularly as access to the ballot box expands to one of the most underserved, underrepresented, and disenfranchised communities – Indigenous peoples.

Tribes and county clerks are hopeful about this expansion. However, Chairman Andrea Martinez of the Walker River Paiute Tribe has stated that internet access is spotty on the reservation, as is electricity due to aging utility poles. These infrastructural issues create significant barriers to utilizing systems like EASE effectively. According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 35% of people who reside on Tribal lands lack access to broadband services, compared to 8% of the general population.

The issue of election security is often cited as a reason to scrutinize and potentially hinder the use of electronic voting systems. Yet, 31 states, including those with longstanding histories of voter disenfranchisement, such as Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and North Dakota, have successfully used similar systems. So why are these concerns heightened now, as we expand access for Tribal members?

This pattern of increased scrutiny when extending rights to Indigenous and other marginalized communities is not new. However, the real barrier that must be addressed is the digital divide that disproportionately impacts Tribal and rural communities. Without reliable internet access, the very systems designed to increase voter participation become inaccessible to those who need them most.

The digital divide is a significant issue affecting many aspects of life in Tribal and rural communities. Lack of internet access hampers education, economic opportunities, and political participation. For instance, a student in an urban area can easily access online resources, submit assignments, and communicate with teachers. Meanwhile, a student on a reservation may struggle to complete homework due to unreliable internet, perpetuating educational inequities.

Similarly, for voters, the inability to access online voting systems means that many Tribal members remain disenfranchised. While EASE is a step in the right direction, its benefits cannot be fully realized without addressing the underlying issue of digital inequality.

To bridge this digital divide, significant investments in infrastructure are needed. This means expanding broadband access to ensure quality, high-speed internet is available in every corner of Nevada, from urban centers to the most remote reservations. Additionally, providing digital literacy programs can empower Tribal members to navigate and utilize these technologies effectively.

By addressing the digital divide, we can ensure that every voice is heard, and every eligible vote is counted. The participation of Indigenous voices is crucial for a representative democracy. Expanding digital access will not only enhance voting rights but also provide opportunities for education, economic growth, and overall community well-being.

As we celebrate the expansion of voting rights through EASE, we must also commit to bridging the digital divide. This means recognizing that access to reliable internet is a fundamental right in the digital age. It is not enough to simply grant access; we must ensure that access is equitable and effective for all.

Indigenous communities have long fought for their rights and recognition. By investing in the necessary infrastructure and education to bridge the digital divide, we take a meaningful step toward rectifying historical injustices and building a more liberated future. The promise of democracy is only fulfilled when every eligible voter can participate fully and fairly, and it is our responsibility to make that a reality for all.

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