Fremont County files appeal notice in voting case

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) September 2010

Fremont County on Sept. 3 filed notice with a federal appeals court in Denver that it will challenge a recent court order to abandon at-large voting for county commissioners.

The county’s decision to appeal promises to drag out the legal battle over American Indian voting rights in Fremont County that’s already gone on for the past five years.

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

Johnson’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of American Indians with legal help from staff lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and others. Fremont County is home to the Wind River Indian Reservation, the only reservation in Wyoming and home to both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

Johnson last month denied Fremont County’s proposals to set aside a single Indian-majority commission district while continuing with at-large elections in the rest of the county.

“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 in denying the county’s proposal.

“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.”

The Fremont County Commission voted late last month to appeal the judge’s denial of their voting plan. However, the county is not appealing his underlying determination that at-large voting for commissioners violated federal law.

Plaintiff Gary Collins, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, said Friday he suspects the county may be appealing the case because it feels some animosity toward the federal government because of Johnson’s ruling. Collins said he believes the law is clearly against the county.

“The potential for lengthy litigation exists, and I don’t see why this would be something they would want to pursue for several years, potentially,” Collins said. “I just don’t see that reasoning.”

Douglas L. Thompson, chairman of the Fremont County Commission, said Sept. 3rd that many political districts in the county have traditionally employed at-large voting. He said it’s going to be difficult to create single-member districts and educate voters in time to elect new commissioners this year to comply with Johnson’s order.

Thompson said he disagrees with Johnson that continuing with at-large voting in most of the county would serve to segregate the American Indian population.

“Myself, I think that putting 75 percent of the Indians in one district is isolating them,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he doesn’t sense any bad feelings against the Indians on the part of the county’s non-Indian population.

“We contended through the whole thing that all citizens in the county, we all live together,” Thompson said. “And so, yes there’s probably some polarization because of this. But I don’t think there’s ever been a desire to see the Native Americans in Fremont County out of the way.”