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Commissioner district borders may be redrawn; comment sought

Feb 2, 2012 - By Martin Reed Staff Writer

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese is planning to solicit public comment on proposed changes to commission voting district boundary lines.

Coinciding with changes to the state's legislative districts that stem from the 2010 Census, Freese is considering adjustments to the commission districts to consider boundary shifts.

She will present a tentative plan for visiting Lander, Riverton, Crowheart, Shoshoni and the Wind River Indian Reservation at the commission's meeting Feb. 7.

The commission district changes would be the first adjustments since a federal court ruling imposed the voting regions in late 2010 because of a lawsuit by five Wind River Indian Reservation tribal members.

The court ruled that Fremont County's method of electing commissioners violated the federal Voting Rights Act because American Indians could not elect their candidate of choice.

Court deliberating

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver continues to consider arguments made nearly a year ago on whether to impose a mix of at-large and single-member district regions for the commission.

In the meantime, Freese presented potential changes for each of the five voting districts at the commission meeting Jan. 24.

In addition to boundaries, one question involves whether all five board seats would be up for election this year.

"You need to decide if all commissioners will run, or the two that are up," Freese said.

Commission seats held by Doug Thompson and Dennis Christensen are up for election this year, but the board could decide to have all seats on the ballot.

"They're giving you a lot of latitude here," Freese said about language in Wyoming statutes on commission districts.

Several options

Although the commission did not immediately decide the matter, the board considered other proposed changes that include new boundaries.

Freese said one possible change for the commission districts takes into account the lines drawn by the legislative committee considering the boundary changes at the state level.

Another involves the district boundaries as proposed by the county government but rejected by the court in favor of the plan presented by the American Indian plaintiffs in the case.

A third plan -- one that seems to have the strongest initial commission favor -- involves keeping the current districts in place but cleaning up some boundary lines, specifically involving Lander, Hudson and Beaver Creek Housing.

Using the latest U.S. Census figures, each of the five current voting districts would fall within the target population range of 7,624 minimum and 8,426 maximum, according to figures provided by Freese.

District 1, consisting of primarily the Wind River Indian Reservation, would retain an American Indian super-majority of nearly 74 percent, or 5,717, out of the total population of 7,728, according to figures.

Changes made in other district proposals would help the clerk's office by reducing the number of overlapping political boundaries within voting precincts and resulting confusion at the polls, some said.

But the potential changes, aside from keeping boundaries roughly the same, could mean people who did not vote in the last election may not vote again this year.

For instance, changing the commission districts to fall in line with legislative boundaries would mean 2,535 people in the Lander area would again miss out on their chance to vote, according to Freese's data.

"We change again, and now we are disenfranchising voters again," commissioner Travis Becker said about the low voter participation in the 2010 election because of the new districts created.

"That's what I'm concerned about, two years later we're changing our lines again, and we are confusing people again," Becker said.

The commission election season last time around generated a record low voter turnout for Fremont County.

The Jan. 18, 2011, special general election saw a lower turnout of 27 percent compared to the Nov. 16, 2010, special primary for commission candidates that had 28 percent of eligible voters participating in the three districts where board seats were available.

"I am really concerned, because of all the changes that are being made, our voting percentages in Fremont County are going down," Freese said.