Appeals court considers Wyoming County vote plan

By Ben Neary
Denver, Colorado (AP) March 2011

An attorney for a Wyoming county recently urged a federal appeals court to overturn an order that opposes the county’s plan to reconfigure its voting system to address a legal challenge from American Indians.

Fremont County is appealing a federal judge’s rejection of its plan to create a single Indian-majority voting district while maintaining at-large elections elsewhere in the county, located in west-central Wyoming.

A group of American Indians won a ruling last year overturning Fremont County’s at-large voting for county commissioners. U.S. District Judge Alan. B. Johnson in Cheyenne ruled that at-large voting violated federal law by diluting the Indian vote.

Johnson also rejected the county’s subsequent “hybrid” voting proposal, saying it would perpetuate racial separation and polarization in Fremont County.

Fremont County holds most of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

Three judges with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver grilled lawyers from both sides last week.

Judge Stephanie K. Seymour asked about the prospect of American Indians getting to elect only one commissioner while other voters would elect four.

“How about the section of (the Voting Rights Act) that says they should have an equal opportunity to participate?” Seymour said.

Lawyer Scott Detamore, representing Fremont County, said Indians make up 20 percent of the population and that the county plan would allow them to elect 20 percent of commissioners.

“The critical element, regardless of participation, is the ability to elect,” said Detamore, an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation. “What you’re really looking at is the white majority is going to elect more commissioners.”

Judge Jerome A. Holmes noted the county plan would allow American Indian voters to cast commission ballots once every four years while other voters could vote for at-large candidates every two years.

Holmes also questioned why the courts should give county’s plan any deference when it violated Wyoming law at the time it was crafted.

Wyoming’s Legislature last month approved a law to allow hybrid voting. Plaintiffs in the Fremont County case said the change was aimed at undermining their case.

Detamore insisted federal law gave Fremont County discretion over how to remedy the violation Johnson found.

The judges asked Laughlin McDonald, lawyer for the Indians, how the plan would harm American Indian residents.

“It would put 90 percent of the Indian voters in one isolated district,” said McDonald, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “The problem with the plan is that it treats the Indian voters in a very different kind of way.”

The appeals court will issue a written ruling at an undetermined date.

After the hearing, Detamore said he believes the outcome will hinge on whether Wyoming law allows Fremont County’s plan.

“The simple answer is that they (the county) were trying to stay as close as possible to at-large voting,” he said.

Plaintiff Gary Collins, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, said he believes that the tribes, as sovereign nations, have a right to equal representation in voting.

“In reality, I think in the bench trial and the documents thereof clearly expressed the reality that discrimination, dilution, hatred and racism still exist,” Collins said. “This case brought these things to the surface, however it didn’t solve them.”