OMAHA -- Thurston County has denied claims that redrawn county board of supervisors districts purposely discriminate against Native American voters who make up a majority of the county's population in order to ensure white politicians maintain control of the board.
In its response to a federal lawsuit filed by the Winnebago and Omaha tribes of Nebraska and nine individuals, the county said allegations that the districts, redrawn after the 2020 Census and approved in 2022, violate the Voting Rights Act "have no basis in law or fact and are false."
In a counterclaim, the county is asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit and declare the county's redistricting plan does not violate the law and protects all county residents' constitutional rights. The county also asked for a declaration that an alternative redistricting plan proposed by the tribes violated the Voting Rights Act.
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The tribes sued Thurston County, the seven county board members and the county clerk in January in federal court in Omaha for the alleged Voting Rights Act violations, saying the district map approved in 2022 does not provide Native voters a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice in at least four of the seven supervisor districts. They're seeking a judge's order declaring the map violates the Voting Rights Act, preventing the county from conducting future elections using that map and requiring implementation of a new districting plan that complies with the law.
The Thurston County Board of Supervisors approved this map of supervisors districts in January 2022. The Winnebago and Omaha tribes of Nebrask…
Natives make up 50.3% of the voting age population, compared with 43% of whites, in Thurston County, which is home to both the Winnebago and Omaha Indian reservations. Other races make up the remainder of the county's population. Because of their majority, the tribes said in the lawsuit, Natives should have a legitimate chance to elect representatives in at least four districts, but the current plan gives them a clear majority in only three.
Though Natives have a slight majority in two other districts, the lawsuit said, those districts were drawn purposely by non-Native board members to take advantage of traditional low Native voter turnout, making them safe for white incumbents. The current board currently has two members who are Natives and five who are white.
The new districts were used in the 2022 election cycle, in which no Native candidates ran in three of the four districts up for election.
After raising concerns about an initial redistricting plan, tribal representatives submitted a proposed map in which four districts would have a Native population of 65% or higher. The board did not adopt that proposal and instead accepted one containing the current districts on a 5-1 vote. Supervisor James Price Sr., a Winnebago Tribe member, casting the dissenting vote. Supervisor Arnie Harlan, an Omaha Tribe member, was not at the meeting.
The Winnebago and Omaha tribes proposed this map for Thurston County Board of Supervisors districts. The board rejected it and approved anothe…
The county said the new district boundaries were developed by gWorks, an independent vendor hired to draw up three plans that complied with all voting laws. The current plan was adopted, the county said, because it aligned supervisor district boundaries with voting precinct boundaries to make the ballot process simpler and to reduce election costs.
The tribes knew the county board had no input into where gWorks drew the boundary lines in any of the three plans, the county said, but continued to accuse county officials of discrimination.
The county's attorney, Patrick Guinan, of Lincoln, also argued county board members Glen Meyer, Mark English, Georgia Mayberry, Price, Davin French, Harlan and Jim Mueller and County Clerk Patty Bessmer should be dismissed as defendants because they're being sued in their official capacities, effectively turning the claims against them into claims against the county. Guinan argues that because Thurston County also is named as a defendant, all official-capacity claims against individuals are redundant and should be dismissed.
The tribes have won two previous voting rights lawsuits against the county. In 1978, the Justice Department sued the county over its at-large method of electing supervisors. A consent decree in that case resulted in the current seven-district format.
The second lawsuit stemmed from redistricting after the 1990 Census diluted Native voting strength by not creating a third district in which Natives had an effective majority.