Indian voters living in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation may be able to elect more Native county commissioners thanks to a ruling by a federal appeals court.
Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes comprise nearly 21 percent of Fremont County and 16 percent of voters have, to date, been able to elect only one Native member to the Fremont County Board of Commissioners because of an at-large voting system.
That may change under James E. Large et al. v. Fremont County and county officials, in a controversy that began in the courts seven years ago:
- In 2005, members of the tribes filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, contending that the county in effect violated the federal Voting Rights Act through at-large board candidacy that prevented the election of a Native or Native-preferred candidate.
- The District Court upheld the tribes suit, and in 2010 rejected a remedial election plan submitted by the county.
- The county appealed the District Court’s rejection of the remedial plan to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which February 22, 2012 upheld the District Court’s order repudiating the plan.
The tribes contended that the county’s existing practice of at-large voting for commissioners prevented a politically cohesive Native vote from electing a candidate of their choice “due to racially polarized white-bloc voting,” according to the court record.
The court-ordered remedial election plan, rejected by the lower court and appealed to the 10th Circuit, called for one single-seat Native voting district representing about 19 percent of the county’s population and one four-seat majority white district encompassing the rest of the county and representing nearly 81 percent of the county’s population.
Candidates from the Native district would have to reside in the district and would have to be voted on by members of the district, while those of the majority white district would be elected at-large by the remaining county voters, a “hybrid” plan not authorized under prevailing Wyoming law, according to a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit.
The board’s plan would “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,” the court said.
The 10th Circuit ruling does not foreclose the possibility that the county may ultimately implement its remedial plan through Wyoming law, which has been amended to allow hybrid election procedures.