Committee moves bill to change voting districts

Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) February 2011

A Wyoming legislative committee recently advanced a bill that would let counties reconfigure their voting districts for county commissioners despite protests from some who said it’s an effort to undercut American Indian voting rights.

The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee recently voted 6-3 to send the bill to the House. It already has cleared the Senate.

The bill, which was sponsored by the joint House-Senate interim elections committee, would allow election of county commissioners in combinations of at-large voting and from established districts. County clerks from around the state have endorsed it.

American Indian plaintiffs won a federal court ruling last year to force Fremont County to stop its system of at-large voting for commissioners on the grounds that it disenfranchised members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes. The county holds most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, which the tribes share.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne last year rejected Fremont County’s plan to set up one voting district in which Indians would be the overwhelming majority while continuing with at-large elections in the rest of the county. He said such hybrid voting districts would guarantee that the non-Indian majority would continue to cancel out the Indians’ voting strength.

Fremont County has appealed Johnson’s denial of its hybrid voting plan. A federal appeals court in Denver has scheduled arguments on the matter next month.

Rep. Pete Illoway, R-Cheyenne, is chairman of the House elections committee. He started the hearing on the bill by saying that although many people say the bill is intended to undo what has been done in Fremont County, that’s the farthest thing from the truth.

Illoway said the bill would create more flexibility in how county commissioners are elected. He said the Fremont County clerk was among county clerks from around the state who have written endorsing the bill.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, is chairman of the Senate elections committee. He testified in favor of the bill, saying the state needs to give counties more flexibility to draft new county commission districts when the new census comes out.

“It does not affect that plan that’s in place in Fremont county,” Case said of the bill. And he said he doesn’t see it would have any effect on the court case.

However, Sarah Gorin with the Equality State Policy Center testified that once the court case is decided, Fremont County could use the new law to create hybrid districts in the future.

Gary Collins, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Fremont County, is a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe and serves as tribal liaison between the tribe and the state.

Collins told the committee the bill is no good and would allow hybrid voting. “That means there are districts and at-large, which was discussed in the court case,” he said. “And I can’t really see what the disconnect is between this bill and the court case.”

The American Civil Liberties Union represents Collins and the other Indian plaintiffs. Linda Burt, head of the ACLU in Wyoming, said single-member voting districts are best to protect minority voting.

Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women voters, also spoke against the bill. She said the league favors single-member districts because they provide better accountability and said county clerks shouldn’t have a role in determining the best way to structure voting in the state.

“I would just caution about trying to work out a scheme in state law that addresses the needs of a particular county in a unique situation,” Herman said.