Judge pledges decision in voting rights case impacting Wind River

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) July 2010

A federal judge said last week that he intends to approve a voting plan for Fremont County in time to seat new county commissioners before current terms expire in January.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson heard arguments last week from Fremont County and from American Indians who sued over the county’s system of at-large voting. Each wants the judge to approve a different voting plan.

Johnson ruled in favor of the American Indian plaintiffs this spring, agreeing that the county’s current at-large voting system violated federal law by diluting their vote. Fremont County holds most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the only reservation in the state.

Lawyers for Fremont County have asked Johnson to approve a single commission district in which American Indians would be the majority while continuing with at-large commissioner elections elsewhere in the county.

The American Indian plaintiffs are pushing for single-member districts for all five commissioners.

Brian Varn, Fremont County attorney, told Johnson that County Clerk Julie A. Freese has determined it will take at least 127 days to hold a special election for commissioners once a final voting plan is approved.

Although Johnson didn’t announce a decision at the end of Tuesday’s two-hour hearing, he did say, “we’re going to give her 127 days or more.”

Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, is among the lawyers representing the American Indian plaintiffs. McDonald urged Johnson to reject Fremont County’s proposal.

“I think it highlights the difference and attempts to maintain the white dominance of the county as much as possible,” McDonald said of the county’s plan.

McDonald also argued that state law allows counties either to have single-member districts or at-large voting, but not the hybrid system Fremont County has proposed.

J. Scott Detamore, a lawyer with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, represents Fremont County. He told Johnson that the county has a right to adopt the new voting plan it prefers as long as it doesn’t violate federal voting law or the U.S. Constitution.

“The bottom line is the remedy is provided,” Detamore said. “They now have representation and I don’t see how it matters how the rest of the county votes.”

Plaintiff Gary Collins, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, attended the court hearing. Speaking afterward, he said he believes setting up a separate district for American Indian voters while continuing with at-large elections elsewhere in the county would dilute and diminish the American Indian vote.

“The fundamental bottom line to me is that we still need to have the five districts with a representative in each one,” Collins said.

Douglas L. Thompson, chairman of the Fremont County Commission, also attended the hearing. Speaking afterward, he said the county believes that single-member districts encourage commissioners to take a more parochial view, only supporting projects that benefit their own area.

Thompson said the county also believes that commissioners from single-member districts are likely to spend more money. He said they typically form alliances and insist on spending in their own areas in exchange for supporting projects elsewhere.

Thompson also said he disagrees with the argument that continuing with at-large elections for most of the county while setting aside a separate district for American Indians would marginalize them.

“It empowers them, actually,” Thompson said. “They are guaranteed the election of a candidate of their preferred choice.”