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Judge approves Blaine voting plan

 

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On the day of the primary election, Blaine County received a decision that changed the makeup of the county commissioner race.

U.S. District Judge Philip Pro of Las Vegas approved the county commissioners' plan to create new county commission districts.

Pro had instructed the commissioners to come up with a new plan after finding that the current system violates the voting rights of Native American voters.

The county had an at-large system, in which all voters in the county voted to fill all three commission seats. Pro's decision limits voting to people living within each commission district.

The decision, if not appealed, means a special primary election will be held in one of the new districts before the Nov. 5 general election.

Victor Miller will remain the commissioner for the district until the election. He declared for re-election before Pro's decision on March 20 that the current system be replaced. He can't run in the new district because he doesn't live in it.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community also submitted a proposal to Pro. Miller said the two sides presented arguments for and against both proposals.

A representative of Ben Speakthunder, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said Speakthunder won't comment on Pro's decision until he consults Fort Belknap's attorneys.

Both sides have 60 days to appeal the decision. The Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative Denver nonprofit representing Blaine County, wants the commissioners to appeal Pro's ruling.

"We'd love to see this case before the Supreme Court," said Scott Detamore, senior attorney at the foundation. "We think it's a case of national importance."

Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson said today the commissioners haven't decided whether to appeal.

"There's some more stuff we've got to sit down and look at," Swenson said.

Swenson said their appeal, which the commissioners declined to file following Pro's March decision, would challenge whether the county has to do away with the at-large system.

Detamore questions whether the federal government has a constitutional right to interfere with local elections in cases where there's no history of intentional racial discrimination.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the county in 1999. A Native American commissioner has never been elected in the county, although 45 percent of the citizens are Native American.

The commissioners' plan divides the county into one district with about 90 percent Native American voters, one with about 40 percent Native Americans and one with about 5 percent Native Americans.

The 90 percent Native American district contains most of the Fort Belknap reservation in Blaine County. The second district includes part of the Fort Belknap Agency and northern Blaine County, including Harlem, Turner and Hogeland. The 95 percent non-Native American district in southwest Blaine County includes the county seat of Chinook.

The Fort Belknap proposal had one district with 80 percent Native American voters, one with 50 percent Native Americans and the last about 5 percent Native Americans. The district including most of the reservation would have an arm that extends to include part of eastern Chinook.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

 

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