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A Long and Winding Road for Fremont County Elections Court Case

March 14, 2011

LANDER, Wyo. - The Fremont County Commission meets Tuesday, and the latest developments in the federal case concerning voting rights for Native Americans are expected to be a topic of discussion. A year ago, a federal judge said the county was diluting the Native American vote with its "at-large" system, and the county appealed.

The House Minority Leader, Rep. Patrick Goggles, lives on the Wind River Reservation in Fremont County. He predicts the legal journey won't be over any time soon. He says that should be expected, based on the long history of racial tension in the area.

"The social changes are slow, and do take a case of this magnitude to change the attitude and change the culture."

A recently signed state law (SF 14) gives a stamp of approval to the Fremont County "hybrid" election system put in place last year in response to the judge's ruling. However, at the time it was put in place, it violated state law, and was also rejected by the presiding federal judge. An appeals court is now reviewing the case.

Northern Arapaho Tribal Liaison Gary Collins is a plaintiff in the original case. He claims the new state law was designed to undermine the tribe's legal standing. Legislative leaders had denied the law would be introduced as evidence - yet it was, just last week.

Collins says the county's resistance to a traditional district system for electing commissioners can be baffling to outsiders.

"There's precincts in the cities and towns of this county, there's irrigation districts, there's school districts - every other part of this government in this county is by district."

Collins gives an example of what he sees as evidence of ongoing racial overtones in Fremont County. He says they play into the whole debate, although attorneys for the county have denied that.

"There was a placard in one of the stores in Lander about 'Go Tigers' - the tiger was charging forward. Someone painted an Indian under his foot. This was in 2010."

U.S. District Judge Alan. B. Johnson in Cheyenne issued the original ruling. The case is now before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to issue a ruling this year.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - WY