SCHURZ, Nevada (NEWSnet/AP) — Nevada’s tribal residents find voting to be a challenge, with in-person locations rarely on tribal lands and voting by mail relying on, well, the mail.

In search of other options, the Walker River Paiute Tribe filed a lawsuit on behalf of all the state’s tribes, seeking polling places on tribal lands along with access to early voting.

“Tribes shouldn’t have to keep filing lawsuits just to vote on their own lands,” said Elveda Martinez, 65, a tribal member and longtime voting advocate. “It should be more accessible.”

In response, the state has granted Nevada tribes the ability to cast ballots electronically. Tribal members who live on a reservation or colony can receive a ballot electronically through an online system set up by the state and also return it electronically.

While no tribal residents have yet signed up, it has the potential to increase participation in elections.

Cal Boone, the new tribal outreach coordinator for the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office and a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, has begun meeting with tribes around the state to share details about the process.

“What we are seeing in Nevada is really powerful, and it really sets the stage for what other states throughout the country can be doing to help support tribes,” Boone said.

But what some see as a step to equalize voting rights raises security concerns for others, with implications far beyond Nevada.

“At this point in the United States, it’s a relatively small number of ballots that are coming through that way,” said Larry Norden, an election expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “But we should be very concerned — both from actual security risks but also from a public confidence point of view — about expanding this.”

How Common is Electronic Voting?

 

More than 30 states allow specific groups of voters to return their ballots either by fax, email or an online portal, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures and Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that studies state voting systems.

Alaska, California, Florida and Oklahoma limit the process to military and overseas voters and only permit electronic return by fax. In Texas, astronauts can use an online portal to cast their ballots. In West Virginia, first responders on duty outside their county also are eligible.

About a dozen states also now allow it for voters with disabilities.

Nevada is believed to be the first to add tribes.

What Are the Security Concerns?

 

In a 2020 memo to election officials, the FBI and other federal agencies assessed the risk of sending ballots electronically to be low, but allowing those ballots to be returned electronically was high.

The memo highlights recommended security practices for internet-connected systems, including isolating computers that handle electronic ballots from ones that are used for other aspects of voting.

“The information provided should be considered a starting point,” the memo states. “Even with these technical security considerations, electronic ballot return remains a high-risk activity.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is charged with helping protect the nation’s election systems, said in an online post that the memo was being redistributed to ensure state officials and policymakers are “fully informed of risks” associated with electronic ballot return.

An attempt to create independent standards ended in late 2022 after a group of experts determined it wasn’t possible at the time given the technology and cyber risks.

What Do Election Officials Say?

 

Kim Wyman, the former top election official in Washington state, initially supported electronic voting as a military spouse, but said she grew wary after taking over as secretary of state. Her attempt to persuade lawmakers to repeal it was unsuccessful.

Wyman said she worries something could happen to the ballot in transit and what that would mean for public confidence in elections. She believes the safest bet is for voters who receive ballots electronically to print them out and return them by mail.

“Election officials are in a hard spot because they want to provide accessibility and they want to make sure that every eligible American has a right to participate in an election,” Wyman said. “But they have to do it in a way where they’re also securing those ballots and making sure that that voter’s ballot is counted the way the voter cast it.”

And Nevada Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar said pointed to the federal government’s action in 2017 to designate the nation’s voting systems as critical infrastructure, just like dams, banks and nuclear power plants.

The state’s electronic ballot return system was designed by the state with security measures intended to verify eligibility, authenticate voters and their ballots, and ensure secure communications, he said. There are steps to ensure voters are not casting multiple ballots, and the system undergoes regular security reviews and updates.

“I’m confident in our system,” Aguilar said.

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