By Tim Leeds
A federal appeals court has ruled that a special primary election for a new county commission district in Blaine County must go on this month.
"Everything as it stands now will go forward," Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said today.
Five people have filed for the special election, which will take place Sept. 19. All have filed as Democrats.
County Commissioner Vic Miller said the county is prepared to conduct the election.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 3 denied Blaine County's motion to stay the election. Blaine County had asked that an election not be held until the 9th Circuit rules on U.S. District Judge Philip Pro's decision to eliminate Blaine County's at-large voting system. Mountain States Legal Foundation, based in Lakewood, Colo., is representing Blaine County in the appeal.
Under Pro's decision, issued March 20, only voters in the districts the commissioners represent can vote in commissioner elections. In the at-large system, all voters in the county voted in each commission race.
The U.S. Justice Department filed the suit against Blaine County in 1999, saying the at-large system diluted the votes of Native Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Although Blaine County is about 45 percent Native American, the county has never elected a Native American commissioner.
In accordance with Pro's ruling, the Blaine County Commission designed new districts, including one mostly containing the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. That district is about 90 percent Native American. Another new district is about 40 percent Native American and the third is about 5 percent Native American.
Kleinjan said problems could result if the county later wins its appeal and the results of the election are thrown out.
"If you get elected and then at some time you're no longer elected, you're booted out it hurts," he said.
ACLU attorney Laughlin McDonald of Atlanta, who represents the Fort Belknap Indian Community in the case, said the appellate court decision comes as no surprise to him.
"It's a long shot to get a stay on an order like that," he said.
Previous congressional action and Supreme Court decisions make it unlikely for Blaine County to win its appeal, he said.
The commissioners said Pro's decision needs to be overturned.
"In the at-large system, with the reservation, in order to get votes I had to go to reservation and work with those people," County Commissioner Don Swenson said. "With the new districts I no longer have to go to reservation. I want to, but all I have to do is appease the people in my district," Swenson said.
Under an at-large system, all commissioners have to respond to the needs of the entire county, Swenson said.
"It's forcing everybody to work together. To me, it's the fairer of the two," he said.
McDonald said history shows otherwise.
"That hasn't been the experience of people who are elected from districts," he said.
McLaughlin pointed out that state legislators and members of Congress are elected from districts. To say what works on the state and national level won't work on the county level seems contradictory, he said.
McDonald said a congressional act in 1982 expanding the Voting Rights Act and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions suggest Pro's decision will be upheld.
The Supreme Court set up a three-point process to see if voting rights have been diluted, he said. The points are: the minority is geographically compacted, such as on an Indian reservation; the minority is politically cohesive as a block; and the majority votes as a block to defeat minority candidates.
All three conditions are met in the Blaine County at-large system, McDonald said.
"I don't think they have a strong case," he said.
Kleinjan said one good thing might come out of the dispute, regardless of the appellate court's decision on the case. Communications between the reservation and the rest of the county might improve.
"I think any communication, any way we can work together for (economic development) is better for both of us," he said.
Representatives of the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Mountain States Legal Foundation could not be reached for comment.