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Worth the trouble?

Feb 24, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Fremont County's new, court-ordered system of electing county commissioners from specified districts is here to stay.

Now those who pushed for the change have a duty to prove it was worth the trouble.

A federal appeals court ruled this week that the districted election setup imposed after an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit persuaded a judge that our county's election system discriminated against American Indian voters must be allowed to stand, as is.

The county had appealed not the principle itself, but the boundary lines of the new districts, which defy a considerable amount of logic. Anyone who follows Fremont County elections knows it.

But none of that really matters now. The court has had its say -- twice -- and this is the system we'll have for awhile. The word "awhile" is used because the court left open the possibility that a way to improve the district boundaries might still be found under state law.

Leave the feds out of it? Great idea. That's a sentiment most in Fremont County can get behind.

In the meantime, however, we have another election coming up. The new system will be on full display.

Remember, the 2010 commission election didn't even take place in 2010 because of the glacial pace of deliberations by the federal judge in the original lawsuit. The election was delayed by two full months. Turnout was embarrassingly low when it finally did take place, plus we learned that most of the local plaintiffs who had fronted the ACLU suit didn't even bother to vote themselves.

You might say the new system didn't get off to a good start. So now, for the first time in a normal election cycle, the new districts will be put to the test. And that test is important.

Our county usually has boasted the highest voter turnout in the state, among the highest in the nation. Will the demise of at-large voting, which means not all voters can vote for all the commissioners, depress voter turnout permanently?

Will the separate, smaller commission districts yield a smaller, poorer, less compelling field of candidates than those we have been able to vote for in the past?

In some elections from now on, most of the county's voters won't get to vote for a commission candidate at all, thanks to the district plan. Will that disconnect the citizens from both the voting process and county governance?

Will the new, districted commissioners begin to look less at the county's interest and instead focus on the district's?

And when the new district intended to isolate American Indian voters so that their "candidate of choice," to quote the recent court ruling, does get to vote, will the dismal showing of the 2010 ... er, 2011 election be repeated?

There is a very real fear that the answers to all these questions will be "yes."

And there is a very real belief that years from now the dismantling of the at-large, countywide system of electing commissioners will be viewed in retrospect as the beginning of a lesser era of civic participation, a lesser era of election choice, and a lesser era of local government connectedness and accountability.

It is a plain fact that residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation could, at any time in our county's history, have nominated and elected an American Indian county commissioner -- or anyone else "of choice," for that matter, had they united behind a candidate and voted as a bloc. That they didn't do it was seen by the court as evidence of discrimination by the old system. But an equal case can be made that a court ruling has done what the voters would not do for themselves.

Lawsuit plaintiffs asked for it, and they've got it. The courts have stepped back, leaving the field to the public. From this point forward, residents for whom the county election structure was turned on its head owe it to the rest of Fremont County's voters, county government in general and, most importantly, to themselves to demonstrate that this radical overhaul of the system really will bring improvement to county elections.

That will take some doing.

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