Despite Native Americans comprising nearly 60% of the total population of Thurston County, officials adopted districts that discriminated against the Native vote. 

Photo of voting box next to Thurston County sign.

On January 19, 2023, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Big Fire Law and Policy Group, filed a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska on behalf of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, and individual tribal members against Thurston County and elected county officials for adopting county supervisor districts that intentionally dilute the Native vote and do not comply with federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) protections. Native American people comprise nearly 60% of the total population of Thurston County and a majority of voting-age residents. If the case is successful, it will be the third time Thurston County’s Board of Supervisor redistricting plans have been found to violate the VRA by discriminating against Native American voters.

“To comply with the VRA, the elected officials responsible were required to create four effective districts that would allow the Native American voters to elect the candidate of their choice, and instead the Thurston County Board of Supervisors created only three. This is the third time tribal members in Thurston County have had to sue the county based on its discriminatory redistricting maps; and this will be the third time a federal court will strike down the county’s map,” said plaintiff and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan.

To ensure the district map complies with the VRA and accounts for the nearly 11 percent decrease of non-Native voters in Thurston County since the previous census, officials must create election district boundaries that allow Native voters a chance to elect representatives of choice in a minimum of four of the seven districts. However, in violation of the VRA, Districts 3 and 5, as approved by the county, provide only a bare majority of Native American voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice. 

“Native Americans now make up a majority of the voting-age population in Thurston County. Instead of following the law to provide four of the seven districts with effective Native American voter majorities, the board rigged the district map in a way to reduce Native American representation into the minority,” said plaintiff and Tribal Secretary of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska Cheyenne Robinson.

The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief from the federal court after Thurston County officials failed to comply with the VRA. This comes despite requests from the Winnebago and Omaha tribal governments during the county’s redistricting process. In 2021, the tribal governments attended multiple redistricting meetings and presented maps to demonstrate how the county could update boundaries in a way that would comply with the VRA. In response to the Tribes’ testimony, the County Board of Supervisors rescinded a redistricting map it had approved just days before, in favor of a map that actually lowered the Native American populations in Districts 3 and 5 even further.

“Not only did the Thurston County Board of Supervisors reject the VRA-compliant map shared by the Winnebago Tribe and the Omaha Tribe, but once the Tribes made their concerns known, the Board decided to make its bad map even worse, by reducing the number of Native Americans in Districts 3 and 5. This is a slap in the face to the Tribes and tribal members in the county, and shows another example of discrimination on the part of the county against tribal members,” said plaintiff and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska Vice-Chairman Brian Chamberlain.

“Thurston County must comply with the Voting Rights Act protections that allow every vote, including Native votes, to count,” said NARF Staff Attorney Michael Carter.

“For the third time, Thurston County will be told they must give fair access to the polls—hopefully they learn this time,” said Big Fire Law & Policy Group LLP Attorney Jennifer Bear Eagle.

“Non-Hispanic Whites are a little more than one-third of Thurston County’s total population. Despite those declining numbers and previous findings of intentional discrimination against Native voters, the five non-Native County Supervisors purposefully adopted a redistricting plan to deny equal representation to the Native voting majority. For the third time, Native voters have had to turn to the federal courts to secure Thurston County’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Enough is enough,” said Senior Special Counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law James Tucker. 

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