LANDER — Despite strong objections from Wind River Reservation tribal leaders, the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill Feb. 18 that allows counties to combine at-large and district elections of commissioners.
The Counties Election Districts Bill (Senate File 14) was signed Thursday by Gov. Matt Mead, and becomes effective July 1.
Leaders of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes contend the bill is a backdoor attempt to overturn a 2010 federal court decision that found widespread discrimination against Native American voters in Fremont County.
Supporters of the bill say they are simply giving Wyoming counties more options in how they elect commissioners. Except for Fremont County, which is under the federal court order, all Wyoming counties currently elect their commissioners at large.
“We are not messing with the court decision,” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), chairman of the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee that drafted the bill. “This just grants counties more flexibility.”
But Indian leaders point to the timing of the bill, a legislative measure which has never come up until the court decision last year ordering Fremont County to revamp its county commission election system to avoid discrimination against Native American voters.
“My concern is that this takes us back to the days prior to the litigation. It puts us back in the adversarial positions,” said state Rep. W. Patrick Goggles (D-Ethete), a member of the Arapaho tribe and the only Native American in the Legislature. Goggles cast one of only two votes against the bill when it went to the House floor on Friday, Feb. 18. The measure passed the House 56-2 and the Senate 29-1.
In August, U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson ordered Fremont County to elect county commissioners from five separate districts, including one with a majority Indian population, as a remedy for decades of discrimination against reservation voters.
Johnson rejected alternative proposals from Fremont County that would combine two methods for electing its five commissioners—a single, majority-Indian district with one representative and a larger, majority-white district in which the remaining four commissioners would be elected at large.
One reason the federal judge gave for rejecting Fremont County’s proposals was that Wyoming state law allows the election of commissioners at-large or in population districts but not a “hybrid” — or combination of the two.
“The Court finds that the hybrid plans proposed by the defendants [Fremont County] do not withstand scrutiny as they are not consistent with principles governing state law,” Johnson wrote. “The two districts proposed in the defendants’ plans here are crafted in such a manner that they preserve 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. The plans appear to be devised solely for the purpose of segregating citizens into separate voting districts on the basis of race without sufficient justification…”
On September 3, Fremont County and its outside law firm, Mountain States Legal Foundation of Lakewood, Colo., appealed the judge’s rejections of its hybrid plans to the 10th Circuit Court.
But the county still had the problem of its plan’s inconsistency with Wyoming law.
Enter the Legislature. On September 28, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, with Lander’s Sen. Case as one of its co-chairs, held a hearing in Cheyenne to consider two bills, one drafted by Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and the other by the committee itself. The bills would permit the creation of the hybrid county election districts like those proposed by Fremont County.
At the hearing, Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn told lawmakers that the proposed bills were drafted in direct response to Judge Johnson’s August 2010 order.
Wyoming tribal leaders objected.
On Oct. 5, Harvey Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council and Ivan Posey, then chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, issued a joint statement calling for the committee to reject the proposed legislation:
“After violating the civil rights of Indian voters for decades, the efforts by certain Fremont County officials to re-write state law to avoid another defeat in the pending lawsuit is scandalous.”
The Indian leaders contended that the “hybrid” system proposed by Fremont County and enabled by the proposed legislation would dilute the Indian vote. Residents of the majority Indian district, they noted, could only vote for one commissioner every four years, while the residents of the majority-white district would elect four commissioners in the same period.
“This kind of separation from the rest of Fremont County government serves only to further institutionalize racism,” the tribal leaders said.
Meanwhile, Fremont County Board of Commissioners Chairman Doug Thompson and Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese were busy lobbying their respective state organizations to support the committee’s version of the bill that came out of the hearing. The bill was subsequently endorsed by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of County Clerks — endorsements that several legislators mentioned as their main reason for supporting the bill.
Supporters of the election bill in the Legislature insist that it is not influenced by the voting rights case in federal court.
“I don’t really think this has much to do with Fremont County,” said Case, whose district includes much of the reservation. “I’d be very surprised if we ever move away from single member districts in Fremont County. They are probably going to lose the appeal anyway.”
During the floor debate in the House, Rep. Dale McOmie (R-Lander) said he was concerned that the legislation did not seem to comply with the federal court ruling by Judge Johnson.
“I’m concerned that we are putting something on the statutes that will take us back to court,” McOmie said.
But Rep. Peter S. “Pete” Illoway (R-Cheyenne) assured him that “this bill would not force you to go back.”
McOmie voted for the bill.
But not all legislators were convinced.
“It was implied that this had no effect on Fremont County,” said Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River), who joined Goggles in voting against the measure. “I am not sure if that is the case or not. When I am not sure of the ramifications of any bill, I usually vote no.”
Senate Majority Leader Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne), the only senator to vote against the bill, was more succinct in his explanation.
“I kept thinking — what happened to the ‘one man, one vote’ concept,” Ross said.