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Trump Campaign Takes Aim At Nevada Native Vote Project

Nevada Native Vote Project offered food and free shirts outside a polling place in Gardnerville, Nevada on Election Day.
Bert Johnson

Nevada Native Vote Project offered food and free shirts outside a polling place in Gardnerville, Nevada on Election Day.

The Trump campaign is suing to overturn Nevada’s election results yet again.

President-elect Joe Biden won the state by a margin of more than 33,000 votes.

But lawyers for Trump and the state Republican party are asking the judge to either give Nevada’s six electoral college votes to Trump – or nullify the election.

They’re also taking aim at get-out-the-vote efforts in Native American communities. In the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyers say the Nevada Native Vote Project acted improperly on Election Day, when it hosted get-out-the-vote events at polling places.

"I think that this lawsuit is a little bit reckless," said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, "It's sort of just casting a wide net of disparagement on the Nevada Native Vote Project. And it turns out a lot of their claims are unsubstantiated."

The campaign is accusing the project of buying votes by handing out food and T-shirts outside a polling site on Election Day. However, De Leon said the laws they're basing that accusation on is from the Tammany Hall days when people were actually paid to vote. Because of that, the law is rarely enforced.

De Leon also said the second problem with the Trump campaign's lawsuit is that it is common for stores like Starbucks and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream to hand out free coffee or ice cream cones to people who have a 'I Voted' sticker.

And finally, the Nevada Native Vote Project's events were open to everyone.

"Even if the advertisement seems to imply that you needed to have an 'I Vote' sticker, what really ultimately matters is whether or not the event was open to everybody," she said, "If the event was open to everybody then it's not illegal."

The lawsuit also accuses the Nevada Native Vote Project of displaying Biden campaign materials on social media, saying they encouraged people to vote for Biden – they didn’t 

That accusation seems to come from a Facebook video from a different event, hosted by Reno-Sparks Indian Colony on Oct. 20, not the Nevada Native Vote Project.

In the Facebook video, the RSIC communications officer posted a video showing the Biden-Harris bus stopping in Reno days before the election. The communications officer works in conjunction with the Nevada Native Vote Project but is not on their payroll.

At the Washoe Tribe’s polling place in Gardnerville, some 50 miles south of Reno, Nevada Native Vote Project was there with a booth but they weren’t asking people if they voted before they got food. There were a lot of kids getting free sno-cones and they’re not even old enough to vote. 

Brian Melendez is a coordinator for the Nevada Native Vote Project. He called the claims in the lawsuit "baseless" and "false."

"It's a tragedy that I think lots of people in this country are brought into really strange predicaments when all we're doing is getting out and voting," Melendez said.

Ethan Doig is the strategy coordinator for the project. He thinks there is a challenge in the rhetoric contained in the lawsuit.

"Part of our job moving forward is to handle on the communication side, reaffirming to the community just how powerful they are, just how powerful their voice is, and how powerful they can be when they use that voice in the voting booth," Doig said.

He believes there a subliminal message of partisan attacks and voter suppression in the lawsuit, but his organization and others have been working on voter engagement all election season and a lawsuit is not going to stop that work. 

As for the lawsuit's chance, De Leon believes it doesn't have much of one. 

"Really, unfortunately, it fits as fodder to create inflammatory claims," she said, "There's not actually any pending action against the project. There's no investigation into the project. There's nothing that the project is legally responsible for."   

She said the Nevada Native Vote Project got wrapped up in the fray of this contentious election, and "the problem with that, I think, is that this is a well-intentioned, effective, get-out-the-vote organization."


Ethan Doig, strategy coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project;  Jacqueline De León, staff attorney, Native American Rights Fund; Bert Johnson, legislative reporter, KNPR;  Brian Melendez, coordinator, Nevada Native Vote Project

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.