By Tim Leeds
The Fort Belknap government thinks it has a better plan for dividing Blaine County into voting districts than the county commissioners do.
The commissioners submitted their plan to U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro of Las Vegas last week, but didn't discuss the plan with the Fort Belknap council before they did, Ben Speakthunder said today.
"That was the unfortunate thing," said Speakthunder, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
Pro ruled on March 20 that the at-large commissioner elections in Blaine County, where everyone in the county votes for each commissioner, violated the voting rights of residents of the reservation. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit against the county in 1999.
Speakthunder said all parties to the negotiations had agreed that they would review any plan before it was submitted. The commissioners told him Tuesday that they submitted the plan without tribal review because he and council Vice President Darrell Martin couldn't be reached.
"I said, There's eight other councilmen here, and we do have cell phones,'" Speakthunder said.
The commissioners could not be reached for comment today.
Speakthunder said the tribal council is working with its lawyers today to finalize its own plan, and soon will submit it to Pro.
"We as a tribe are talking about our civil rights and our voting rights," he said. "We're not asking for any special treatment. We're asking for due process and fair treatment."
No Native American has ever been elected as a Blaine County commissioner. The population of the county is about 44 percent Native American.
The main difference between the two plans is how they deal with Chinook. The commissioners' plan generally follows the boundaries of the reservation, excluding a portion of the Fort Belknap Agency and grouping that portion in a northern district with Harlem. Chinook is in a third district.
The district containing the reservation in the Fort Belknap plan also excludes a portion of the agency, but extends west to include part of Chinook. Chinook south of U.S. Highway 2 east of Minnesota Avenue would be part of the district including the reservation.
The reservation district should include part of Chinook because reservation members do a lot of business in the town, and because it is the county seat, Speakthunder said.
In earlier interviews, the commissioners said part of the reason they designed the districts the way they did was that the county has an aging non-Native American population, and a youthful Native American population. The plan had to reflect how the voting-age population will change, as well as the total population, the commissioners said.
Speakthunder said the plan Fort Belknap is submitting also takes voting-age changes into consideration.
"Give or take, in 12 years the areas will be up for redistricting anyway," he said.
The Fort Belknap plan splits Blaine County's population almost evenly at about 2,335 in each district, with one district being about 80 percent Native American, one district about 50 percent Native American and the last district about 5 percent Native American.
The commissioners' plan has one district about 90 percent Native American, one about 5 percent Native American and the last about 40 percent Native American. The population of the districts ranges from 2,268 to 2,417.
The number of people below the voting age in the districts is close in both plans.