American Indians oppose Fremont County’s voting plan

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) July 2010

The American Indians who successfully sued Fremont County over how it elects county commissioners filed court papers durng July opposing the county’s proposal for a new voting system.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne ruled this spring that Fremont County’s at-large election system violated federal law by diluting the American Indian vote.

The county during June proposed a new voting system that would designate a single commission district in which American Indians would be the majority. It wants to continue with at-large elections in the rest of the county, but it would require that the remaining commissioners live in separate districts.

The American Indian plaintiffs filed papers with Johnson’s court on Friday stating they oppose the county’s plan and want single-member districts. Johnson has set a hearing on the matter for July 27.

In a conference call with reporters, plaintiffs Lucille McAdams and Gary Collins said they were concerned that adopting the county’s proposals would result in continued political disenfranchisement for American Indians. Fremont County holds most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, home to both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

“My concern is that the reservation is large enough that it contributes a significant part to this community and to the state,” Collins said.

If the other four commissioners were still elected at-large, Collins said he’s concerned that, “the reservation could be isolated.”

An attempt to reach Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn for comment on the plaintiff’s opposition to the county’s voting plan was unsuccessful.

In an interview last month with The Associated Press, Varn said the incumbent Fremont County Commissioners believe that having single-member districts favors the election of incumbents. He said that under the county’s at-large system, up to 25 people have run for the county commission at once.

“They felt that a candidate that only has to appeal to a smaller district has less appeal countywide,” Varn said last month. “So a good moderate candidate that appeals to the entire county, and the entire county getting to vote on, makes for a better candidate overall.”

Lawyer Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, is among the lawyers representing Collins, McAdams and the other American Indian plaintiffs.

McDonald said he believes that creating single-member districts would be the preferred solution under both federal and state law to address the violation.

“The defendant’s proposed plans are not consistent with state law, so that’s another reason we think it’s objectionable,” McDonald said. He said state law allows only at-large election of commissioners, which Johnson has already rejected, or single-member districts.