Editor’s Note: In April Cheyenne U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson ordered Fremont County to scrap its at-large system for electing county commissioners to address historic under-representation by the Native American population on the county’s most powerful elected body. The county countered with a plan, opposed by tribal plaintiffs, that would reserve a spot for the Wind River Indian Reservation on the board while electing the remaining commissioners at large. Judge Johnson heard arguments from both sides on July 27, in Cheyenne dut deferred his decision. WyoFile will keep you updated with the latest developments in the key voting rights case.
The case is addressed in this guest column by Arapaho tribe member Gary Collins, one of the orginal plaintiffs in the case.
By Gary Collins
Long ago I asked my late father, Floyd Collins, a Northern Arapaho tribal member, why his generation failed to challenge the discriminatory election system in Fremont County, Wyoming.
He could not answer me with words, but his eyes expressed regret.
Years later, a small group of American Indians, including myself, joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the county’s at-large voting system in court and won. The outcome of that lawsuit will allow thousands of disenfranchised Fremont County residents to cast a meaningful vote in the election for County Commission.
We take pride in our accomplishment, and feel satisfied knowing that the Indian people and the tribes will finally have a representative at the top tier of county government, while maintaining their own sovereign identities.
However, the work is not done; one important hurdle remains.
On July 27, U.S. District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson will hear arguments in federal court in Cheyenne on how best to redraw county voting districts to comply with the law. Unfortunately, the county has submitted plans that we find unacceptable.
In his decision last spring, Judge Johnson instructed the Commission to craft a districting plan that complies with the law and requires “the election of county commissioners in Fremont County by district rather than at-large.”
Instead, the county submitted plans that would retain at-large voting, violate Wyoming law and also appear to involve gerrymandering. As well, the plans could create problems for voters in the Lander and Riverton communities.
The county’s preferred plan calls for an American Indian-majority district and at-large voting in the rest of the county. An alternative plan calls for an American Indian-majority district and at-large voting elsewhere, with each at-large commissioner living in a separate district.
We believe that Judge Johnson was clear when he called for single-member voting districts, and the county’s hybrid at-large plans should be rejected.
We also believe the county’s districting plans fail to satisfy requirements that voting districts be “compact and contiguous.” Instead, the plan would cobble together far-flung sections of the county into districts that appear designed to help some current commissioners retain their positions.
We are also puzzled why the commissioners’ proposed districts unnecessarily split the vote in Lander and Riverton. Under the county’s alternative plan, Lander faces the possibility of no representation on the County Commission.
We also think the Commission should explain why it has not done more to inform the public about its districting proposals.
Given the heightened public interest in the voting issue, and the impact the new districts will have on county elections, we expected the commission to hold public forums or publish drawings of their plans in the local news media. It did neither.
Instead, some commissioners have been grousing publically about possible election delays and the burden late elections could place on the strained county budget.
In fact, the Commission could have avoided special elections and additional costs by submitting satisfactory districting plans at the outset. To now give the impression that the plaintiffs are responsible for any cost or delay is unreasonable.
We genuinely hope that election delays are not necessary. If they are, we hope non-Indian voters will be patient. We also hope they will remember that American Indians in Fremont County have been waiting since 1924 – the year Indians became U.S. citizens — to cast meaningful votes in the county’s most important election.
No matter what happens, we feel great pride in our victory in the voting-rights case. We also feel gratitude in knowing that we can finally tell our children and grandchildren that we fought for and won their election rights.
Gary Collins is a geologist and an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.