GM 12-032

Wyoming Tribes Win Major Voting Rights Decision

On February 22, 2012, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2010 district court decision ordering Wyoming’s Fremont County to conduct elections using a single-member elections system. Fremont County is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes of the Wind River Reservation.

In 2005, the ACLU brought a voting rights suit against the County charging that the County’s at-large voting system diluted the Native American vote in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Native Americans in Fremont County make up 21 percent of its population yet they had been unsuccessful in electing representatives to the County Board prior to 2010.

In 2010, the district court ordered the County to create a remedial plan. The County proposed creating one district seat for its Native American population while allowing the remaining majority white population to elect four commissioners. The district court rejected the proposal and endorsed the plaintiff’s plan which would create five single-member districts.

The district court wrote that the County’s proposal would have “perpetuate[d] 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 County appealed the rejection of its plan. See our General Memoranda 10-64 of May 14, 2010 and 10-132 of October 15, 2010.

On Appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that the County’s proposal was not a legislative plan entitled to deference by the courts. Thus, the district court properly refused to embrace the County’s proposal. The ruling does leave open the possibility that the Wyoming legislature could change state law to create a hybrid voting system but that remains an undecided issue for the time being.

Please let us know if we may provide additional information regarding this matter.