CHEYENNE — Critics say a draft bill that cleared a legislative committee on Monday is part of a broader effort by Fremont County to sidestep a federal judge's order that it stop disenfranchising American Indian voters.
The bill would change Wyoming law to allow election of county commissioners in combinations of at-large voting and from established districts.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted 9-4 to send it on for consideration by the full Legislature next year.
The issue of whether to allow such a hybrid voting system for electing commissioners has been at the center of a bitter legal fight in Fremont County. Some county lawmakers have been pushing recently to change the state law to allow hybrid voting.
U.S. Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne ruled early this year ruled the county's long-standing system of electing commissioners at-large violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the American Indian vote.
The county is home of most of the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
Fremont County responded to Johnson's ruling by proposing a hybrid voting plan in which a single designated district would have most of the county's American Indian population while at-large voting would continue in the rest of the county.
Johnson rejected the county's proposal this summer.
"The plans proposed by defendants 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," Johnson wrote in August.
Fremont County is appealing Johnson's rejection of its hybrid voting proposal to a federal appeals court in Denver. In opposing the county's proposal, lawyers for the Indian plaintiffs have emphasized that state law doesn't currently allow it.
Fremont County Clerk Julie A. Freese spoke in favor of the bill on Monday.
"This is not just about Fremont County, number one." Freese said. She said the only options under current state law is for Fremont County to have five single-member districts.
"I don't think that's fair, and a lot of our county commissioners also agree that that's not fair," Freese said. "That's number one why this is a good change in the bill."
Freese said that without passing the bill, Fremont County would have no guidance in state law of how it should handle commission redistricting two years from now.
The committee adopted language proposed by co-Chairman Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, specifying that the bill wouldn't go into effect until early 2012. Case said that would avoid having influence on the county's ongoing federal appeal.
Andrew Baldwin, a Lander lawyer, is among the lawyers representing the American Indian plaintiffs in the voting rights case. He urged the committee to reject the bill.
If the bill wouldn't go into effect for two years, Baldwin said he questioned why the state needed to adopt it now.
"I think the answer is Fremont County wants it, and I think that's why it does involve primarily Fremont County," Baldwin said. "They want it because of their ongoing court case. So we do oppose any provision in any bill that would allow a hybrid system, at least at this point in time."