Judge sides with American Indians in voting case

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) August 2010

A federal judge sided with American Indians and ordered Fremont County to elect county commissioners in five separate districts.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson’s order rejected Fremont County’s proposal to continue with at-large voting in most of the county.

Fremont County holds most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the only reservation in Wyoming. Plaintiffs in the voting lawsuit include members of the both tribes there, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone.

Johnson this spring ruled in favor of the Indian plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the county in 2005. Johnson agreed that the county’s long-standing system of at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the Indian vote.

In response to Johnson’s ruling, Fremont County had proposed two similar voting plans. Both the county’s proposals called for designating a single commission district in which Native Americans would be the majority while continuing with forms of at-large voting in the rest of the county.

Johnson’s order prohibits the county from using at-large voting to elect commissioners in the future. Instead, he adopted a plan proposed by the plaintiffs that divides the county into five districts of roughly equal population, including one district that will have mainly Indians in it.

Johnson ordered the county to use those districts for a special commissioner election this year and for regular elections after that.

“The plans proposed by defendants perpetuate the separation, isolation and racial polarization in the county, guaranteeing that the non-Indian majority continues to cancel out the voting strength of the minority,” Johnson wrote.

“The (county’s) plans appear to be devised solely for the purpose of segregating citizens into separate voting districts on the basis of race without sufficient justification, contrary to the defendants’ assertions.”

Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project in Atlanta, has represented the Indian plaintiffs together with Lander lawyers Andrew Baldwin and Berthenia Crocker.

“It’s great for the plaintiffs,” McDonald said Tuesday of Johnson’s ruling. “And it’s also, I think, great for all the voters in Fremont County, because it will allow everybody to participate.”

McDonald said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that courts should create single-member districts to address such violations of the Voting Rights Act unless there’s some defensible reason not to do so.

McDonald said the high court has ruled that single-member districts decrease voter confusion and increase the opportunity for political participation.

Douglas L. Thompson, chairman of the Fremont County Commission, said Tuesday he and other commissioners were greatly disappointed with Johnson’s decision.

“We need to evaluate the decision and our options at this point,” Thompson said.

The court-ordered plan is going to require a great deal of work by the County Clerk’s Office before any election can be held, Thompson said. It may prove to be impossible to hold a special commission election in time to seat the new commissioners before current terms expire in early January, he said.