Lander—A federal court decision ordering Fremont County to scrap its system of electing commissioners on a county-wide basis is a major victory for Native Americans who have long complained they are under-represented on the county’s most powerful elected body.
On Thursday, Judge Alan B. Johnson of the U.S. District Court in Cheyenne ordered a proposal for the division of the county electoral map into election districts by June 30. Johnson said in his ruling that it was “quite probable” the new system could be up and running by November, when the commissioners face reelection.
According to the 2000 census, Native Americans number about 7900—roughly 22 percent—of Fremont County’s 36,000 residents, some 17 percent of voting-age residents. Most are from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. No Native American had ever been elected commissioner until Keja Whiteman, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa whose husband is Arapaho, won a seat a seat on the commission in 2006.
Lawyers for the Arapaho and Shoshone plaintiffs in the case called the ruling a significant political boost for Fremont County Indians. Most live on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which encompasses roughly a third of the county’s 9250 square miles and is beset by high rates of poverty and unemployment.
“We’re very pleased,” said Berthenia Crocker, a Lander attorney who, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, represented the plaintiffs. “There are needs that people who live in that part of the county don’t have addressed, that other people in the county do have addressed.”
Commissioner Dennis Heckart defended the current “at-large” system, noting that a Native American already serves on the commission, and said the court ruling had thrown the county’s election plans into turmoil just weeks before the filing deadline for candidates in the November election.
“I think we were all surprised,” Heckart said of the ruling. “We elected a Native American to serve on the commission, so in our opinion it was sort of self-evident that the voters of the county were not placing their votes based on any racial consideration.” He said the commission had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
The case was filed five years ago when lawyers for five Indian plaintiffs sued the county on grounds that its at-large electoral system violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars electoral practices that discriminate against minorities. They argued that the at-large system dilutes Indian voting strength, noting that only one of the eight Native Americans to run for the commission—Whiteman—has ever been elected. Indian leaders contend that the lack of representation has cost them dearly in terms of access to public services, such as fire and ambulance protection, and other county-sponsored health and educational programs. There is no public library on the reservation.
“When there’s a fire, they come out here, but by the time they get here it’s too late,” said Norman Willow, Sr., a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. “We’ve been here how many years waiting on things like this?”
Attorneys for the county said that Indians have historically been underrepresented on the commission because their candidates were Democrats in a largely Republican county, and ran ineffective campaigns, often against popular incumbents. They also suggested that dividing the county into districts could complicate efforts to reach consensus on the commission, and make it harder for voters to toss out incumbents. The county was represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative, Colorado-based group founded by Wyoming lawyer James Watt, who served as Interior Secretary during the Reagan Administration.
“I think the commission felt that being responsible to all the people, as opposed to just your district, promoted cooperation in the whole county,” said Mountain States Legal attorney J. Scott Detamore. “Arguably with single member districts you may have a situation in which each person represents his or her district, and may or may not be interested in the rest of the county.
Judge Johnson rejected the county’s arguments in a ruling issued more than three years after the case was tried. In his 102-page opinion, he dug deeply into the history, recalling that Native Americans were not even granted citizenship until 1924, after which they were often barred from voting by literacy tests. Johnson said it was “telling” that several former commissioners who testified in the case claimed to be completely unaware of any discrimination, and professed ignorance of the extent of poverty on the reservation.
“The long history of discrimination against Indians in the United States, Wyoming and Fremont County is undeniable,” he wrote in his opinion. “The evidence presented to this court reveals that discrimination is ongoing, and that the effects of historical discrimination remain palpable. The court rejects any attempt to characterize this discrimination as being politically, rather than racially, motivated.”
As a practical matter, Johnson wrote, “Indians have had no success in electing candidates to the County Commission when they have expressed their strongest preferences.” He noted, for example, that in the 2000 general election, a Native American candidate won 88 percent of the Indian vote, but “got only 34 percent of the non-Indian vote and was defeated.
He added, “That only one Indian has ever been elected to the County Commission is indeed significant, and is a fact that cannot be ignored or completely explained away.”
Johnson gave the county until June 30 to come up with a new voting plan, which will be discussed at a hearing on Aug. 13, after plaintiffs have had a chance to respond.
Keja Whiteman, the commission’s sole Native American member, said she was hopeful that the ruling will be helpful “in the long term,” but worried about its implications for the coming election.
“The impact is going to be disruptive,” she said. “There are so many questions.”
Judge Johnson’s Decision (102-page pdf)
I am eager to see how this ruling will influence our local democratic process. Although change can be challenging in the short term, my hope is that in the long term Fremont County’s government will be representative of all citizens. Maybe “liberty and justice for all” will have new meaning here in Fremont County.