Native voters, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska have successfully negotiated a court approved redistricting plan with Thurston County to settle the redistricting lawsuit Winnebago Tribe and Omaha Tribe, et. al. v. Thurston County, et. al. On January 26, 2024, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska approved a consent decree that requires the Nebraska county to adopt a new district plan to provide Native Americans a fair opportunity to elect candidates to the Thurston County Board of Supervisors. Local elections will use the new map starting in next year’s elections and until the next redistricting process begins after 2030.

Given that Native Americans now comprise a majority of Thurston County’s population, the new map will provide that four of the seven Board of Supervisors districts will provide Native voters with a fair opportunity to elect their preferred candidates, as required by the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). This case marks the third time Thurston County has been successfully sued under the VRA for a redistricting plan that violates the rights of Native American voters in the county.

“Native people in Thurston County have thrived against all odds in spite of any setback, and this includes defending Native voters’ right to participate in legal and fair elections in Nebraska,” said Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan. “We negotiated the new district map with county officials so Native voters will have a fair chance at electing candidates to the Board of Supervisors in 2024.”

“This case shows that we will keep fighting for our right to vote,” said Omaha Tribe Chairman Jason Sheridan. “The new consent decree resolves the third and hopefully last lawsuit against Thurston County to get a legal and equitable redistricting process. The Omaha Tribe is dedicated to fight any legal battles Thurston County throws at us.”

In 1979, courts subjected Thurston County to a consent decree forbidding the adoption of an at-large voting system as violating Section 2 of the VRA, because an at-large system would disenfranchise the estimated 28% population of Native voters in the county at the time. As a result of another lawsuit, the courts in 1996 required Thurston County to create a legal district map that fairly apportioned the then estimated 36% population of Native voters in accord with the VRA. The 2023 consent decree requires Thurston County to create a legal district map that reflects that Native Americans now comprise almost 60% of the county’s population and make up a majority of the voting age population of Thurston County. During Thurston County’s redistricting process after the release of the 2020 Census, the Board of Supervisors refused to implement a VRA-compliant map proposed by both Tribes, and instead adopted a map that will now be replaced by a VRA-compliant map as required under the new consent decree.

Before approving the consent decree, the court asked the parties to submit briefing on what effect a recent Eighth Circuit opinion had on the court’s ability to approve the consent decree. That Eighth Circuit case, Arkansas State Conference NAACP v. Arkansas Board of Apportionment, made the unprecedented ruling that private citizens do not have a right of action under Section 2 of the VRA. However, the judge ultimately found that authority does exist for the Nebraska court to approve the consent decree.

The Native voters and tribal governments, represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Big Fire Law and Policy Group, retained their right under the new consent decree to take Thurston County back to court should the county officials fail to abide by the new decree.

“Fair and legal elections will finally take place in Thurston County, only after Tribes and Native voters fought to secure an equitable district map,” said NARF Staff Attorney Michael Carter.

“This consent decree reinforces the essential mandate that district lines cannot be drawn in a way that stops voters of color from participating fully and equally in our democracy. ” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  We and our clients have produced a court approved redistricting plan that removes the barriers that would have prevented Native Americans in Thurston County from electing their candidates of choice.”

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