Voting Rights Act suit helps unseat incumbent in Fremont County

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A teepee stands outside a home in Ethete, Wyoming. The success of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit meant to guarantee representation to Native Americans on the Wind River Indian Reservation has altered the area’s county commissioners. (Robert Durell/WyoFile)
A teepee stands outside a home in Ethete, Wyoming. The success of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit meant to guarantee representation to Native Americans on the Wind River Indian Reservation has altered the area’s county commissioners. (Robert Durell/WyoFile)

By Ron Feemster, WyoFile.com

The Voting Rights Act lawsuit that replaced at-large voting for county commissioners with district-by-district elections in Fremont County has shifted the balance of power on the commission, even in a year when the Native American district centered on the Wind River Indian Reservation was not before the voters.

Stephanie Kessler, a longtime environmental consultant and a former school board member from Lander, defeated Patrick Hickerson, an incumbent Republican county commissioner who had served for 10 years on the commission. Kessler, an independent, received 52 percent of the votes cast in District 4 to win by 149 votes.

Stephanie Kessler

Stephanie Kessler, newly elected county commissioner from District 4 in Fremont County. (Click to enlarge)

Although Kessler felt confident of winning in the district race, she said she did not like her chances under the former at-large format.

"I probably couldn't win (an at-large race) because I'm not known in the other communities," Kessler said. "It would have been too great a task, too big of a commitment of time and money, to campaign county-wide."

Under the old format, every voter in the county could vote for any candidate, regardless of where the voter or candidate resided. Voters could vote for up to three candidates one election and up to two the next. In the district format, voters in each of five districts may vote for only one candidate.

The district system, introduced to comply with a federal district judge's ruling in the lawsuit, is meant to guarantee representation to Native Americans on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The plaintiffs pushed through a claim that Native Americans were not adequately represented under at-large voting, even though Keja Whiteman, a Native American, was elected to the county commission in an at-large election while the suit was being litigated. Fremont County is the only county in the state with district voting for county commissioners.

If district voting has made it easier for Native Americans to get elected (Whiteman has since been re-elected as a representative of District 1) the new system has also enabled local candidates without county-wide name recognition to win by appealing to the interests they share with neighbors.

"We did anticipate that district voting would have positive effects on the county," said Berthenia Crocker, a Lander lawyer whose firm represents the Northern Arapahoe tribe and who represented the five individual plaintiffs in the voter rights suit.  "Districts are better for everyone. The fact that Steff [Kessler] was able to win was a result of districting. I don't know that she would have won otherwise."

Not everyone in the county shares the view that district elections lead to better representation. Among those are Doug Thompson, an incumbent who won re-election in District 5, which includes part of Lander and most of the southern part of the county, and Hickerson, the incumbent who lost to Kessler.

"In the old system, as a citizen you got to vote for all five commissioners," Hickerson said, arguing that at-large voting made every commissioner accountable to every citizen in Fremont County, not just to the voters in one district. "As a county commissioner, your role and the things you do are largely based on county-wide issues."

Thompson argues that the district elections elevate local concerns above countywide issues. "The districting changed the political dynamics of my and Hickerson's district," he said. "There was a lot of local influence that affected the outcome.

"The foundation of government," Thompson went on, "is that you vote for the people who spend your tax dollars. You want to be able to vote for all of those people, not just one."

Starr Miller, a cowboy at Arapaho Ranch in Wyoming rides along a corral fence on part of the ranch

Starr Miller, a cowboy at Arapaho Ranch in Wyoming, rides along a corral fence on part of the ranch. Patrick Hickerson, former county commissioner of District 4, says environmental issues boosted Kessler into his former spot. (Robert Durell/WyoFile -- click to enlarge)

In fact, the candidates disagree about many of the issues that decided the election in District 4.

"The election was about environment and public lands issues," Hickerson said. "My opponent and myself are on opposite sides of the issue when it comes to public lands: roaded access or wilderness. I have a long record of favoring motorized trails, snowmobile trails and so on. My opponent has a long record of environmental activism for wilderness. She sits on the boards of environmental organizations."

Kessler, while she does not dispute her commitment to wilderness, believes that Hickerson's portrayal of the race in environmental terms missed the issues she actually campaigned on.

She said her goal was to convince the voters of Lander that she would be a voice of compromise and reason.

"I ran on the position that I work with people, not litigate with them," she said.

In her door-to-door canvassing, she spoke with voters about how the county commission had waged court battles with Lander Hospital and landowners who disputed the commission's right of way for expanding Bunker Road, a county thoroughfare. In contrast, she pointed to her tenure on the school board, where, she said, she helped focus issues and achieve consensus.

"Bunker Road helped me get elected," Kessler said. "I argued that the litigation wasted money instead of saving it."

When it comes to conservation, she says she is not the radical her opponents made her out to be.

"My expertise is in oil and gas," she said. "I'm actually pro-development in the right places. As county commissioners, we do have a responsibility to see revenues come in. We need to have a balanced representation of all interests in the county."

Keja Whiteman, the Native American representative in District 1 who has also won an at-large election, is not the unqualified fan of the district voting system that outside observers might expect.

"The good part is that there will be representation for the Native community," she said. "It was 2006 before someone representing the community was elected to the commission."

But she cautions that the district system could also give too great an advantage to incumbents.

"Being elected once doesn't entitle you forever to have a seat," she said.  "There should always be the opportunity for others to serve. In general, I'm not personally in favor of districts, but I'm ready to follow the ruling like everyone else."

One thing that all parties to the dispute agree on is that, once elected, a commissioner must act on behalf of the country as a whole, not just his or her own district. Using almost the same words, every present or former commissioner said the same thing: The job, if not the election, is focused on the issues of the county as a whole.

Although Fremont County was forced into district voting for the county commission, it is worth asking if other counties, especially very large or extremely heterogeneous counties, would be well served by district voting.

A brief and very informal survey of elected officials in the state suggests that the idea has little traction.

"I really don't think there is any county in the state that is analogous to Fremont County, just because of the reservation," said Bruce Burns, a Republican state senator from Sheridan who donated money to Kessler's campaign.

Wind River Indian Reservation

While district voting has created an unusual situation in Fremont County, it's unlikely to spread on to other counties in Wyoming. (WyoFile/Brad Christensen -- click to enlarge)

In Lincoln County, residents of Star Valley in the north detour through Idaho to reach the county seat of Kemmerer. Southern residents of the county, which depends on mining, oil and gas, once petitioned the state legislature for permission to split off and form a county of their own. But even there, district voting is not seen as the answer.

"The county split idea is still very popular," said Zem Hopkins, the newly re-elected mayor of Kemmerer. "But I don't think district voting would work here. The north would not sit still for it. They're the power." Currently, two of Lincoln County's commissioners live in the north and one comes from Kemmerer.

"It's working well enough right now," Hopkins said. "There's no need to agitate anyone in the county with district voting."

In Fremont County, the commission begins work in January with five commissioners who have been elected by district. Two are new. Kessler and Larry Allen, a Republican from Lysite who won his primary election and ran unopposed in District 2. Kessler is optimistic about what the new commission will accomplish.

"I believe it just takes one or two new voices and leadership," she said. "The dynamics of the county can shift."

EDITOR'S NOTEA previous version of this story misspelled the name of the lawyer representing the voter rights plaintiffs. She is Berthenia Crocker. Ms. Crocker represents the Northern Arapahoe tribe but not the Eastern Shoshone tribe.

-- Read these related WyoFile stories:

10th Circuit upholds ruling in voting rights case, February 2012

Lawmakers pass 'hybrid' district vote bill, over tribal leaders' objection,  February 2011

Fremont County Voting Rights Case: County to appeal, Fremont citizens will pay the bill, November 2010

-- Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was as a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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