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Weston County claims legislative underrepresentation, resolves to seek its own lawmakers

Two years after Wyoming lawmakers redrew legislative maps, Weston County voters want more exclusive representation in Cheyenne. The courts have previously ruled otherwise.

The Weston County Courthouse in Newcastle, Wyoming is pictured in 2009. (Jimmy Emerson/FlickrCC)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

A decades-long dispute over Wyoming’s legislative redistricting methods has come to a boil in Weston County. A group of voters there claim the 2022 process left them inadequately represented in the Wyoming Legislature.

Lawmakers are constitutionally required to divvy up voters into legislative districts every 10 years following a federal census. 

The maps, as redrawn in 2022, leave Weston County without a representative or a senator who exclusively represents the county in the statehouse. Instead, Weston County’s four legislators also represent varying portions of Campbell, Crook, Goshen and Niobrara counties. 

In response, Weston County Commissioners passed a resolution in April declaring two legislative vacancies. While there aren’t two open seats in the traditional sense of a vacancy, such as when someone dies or resigns, the resolution attempts to use the vacancy process to redress grievances with the current legislative map.  

“Weston County currently has neither a state representative nor a state senator,” the resolution states, before seeking to set off the appointment process. 

The resolution cites the Wyoming Constitution that states, “each county shall constitute a senatorial and representative district” and each “county shall have at least one senator and one representative.” 

However, the resolution omits a footnote born of a 1991 legal challenge that caused the Legislature to change its approach to redistricting. 

“This section is inconsistent with the application of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle under circumstances as they presently exist in Wyoming,” a footnote in the constitution states. “Consequently, the Wyoming legislature may disregard this provision when reapportioning either the senate or the house of representatives.” 

The resolution also has the backing of the Wyoming Republican Party, which passed two resolutions at its April convention in support of the cause. 

The Weston County resolution is not likely to get very far without a corresponding legal challenge, according to both supporters and critics. In the meantime, the dispute reflects the latest urban-rural tensions that have long characterized Wyoming’s legislative mapping. 

How we got here

Wyoming has seen its share of legal challenges when it comes to redistricting, but none have altered the process so much as the 1991 Gorin v. Karpan federal court decision. 

Up until then, redistricting relied on multi-member legislative districts, or districts in which more than one senator or representative was elected to represent the entire county, according to a Legislative Service Office memo. In other words, lawmakers exclusively represented one county as opposed to portions of several counties.  

But a federal district court ruling changed that. 

In Gorin v. Karpan, the court held that Wyoming’s legislative maps violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution — also known as “one person, one vote.” 

The court then directed the Legislature to disregard the county provision of the Wyoming Constitution when apportioning House and Senate seats. The effect was a shift away from strict adherence to county boundaries and toward population. 

So far, the approach has held up, including against a 2012 legal challenge. 

Weston County

An attorney named William Curley is the driving force behind the resolution in Weston County. 

“I want the record clear. Nobody’s attacking ‘one man, one vote.’ It’s not the issue. Nobody’s attacking federal supremacy. Nobody’s attacking, et cetera,” Curley said at the April 2 meeting before the commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the resolution. Video of the meeting was made public by the Newcastle News Letter Journal. 

“It’s a state constitutional issue and hopefully the result of pushing it is, the constitution gets changed,” Curley said. 

Curley did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment. 

Local Weston County attorney Bill Curley, center in red plaid, argues in favor of a resolution to declare two legislative vacancies. (Screenshot/News Letter Journal’s YouTube of county footage)

Curley’s resolution has the support of at least two of Weston County’s four lawmakers — House Majority Floor Leader Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) and Rep. Allen Slagle (R-Newcastle). Both spoke at the meeting and both are members of the hard-line Freedom Caucus. 

Neiman told meeting attendees he supported it “because we’re watching the major metropolitan municipalities control the vote because we are handling it democratically.”

One obstacle, Neiman said, would be to determine how to “thoughtfully progress through this without — and with all due respect — without making you guys look like, as if you’re a bunch of crazy, ‘look what they’re doing.’”

Slagle blamed the public school system for instructing students that “we’re a democracy.

“The whole idea of representative republic was representatives to represent a district. It wasn’t necessarily a certain number of people, it was a district. And so that’s why this whole concept of districting by county lines is important in my opinion.”

Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), meanwhile, is taking a different approach. 

“We went down that path many years ago and did exactly what Weston County strives to do. We lost,” Driskill told WyoFile, referring to the 2012 case.

In that case, according to an LSO memo, plaintiffs alleged three things: the Legislature failed to reapportion in a manner that minimized county splitting; by doing so, voters in some legislative districts were provided different electoral rights than others; and holdover Senators elected in 2010 whose district boundaries changed in 2012 should have been required to run for reelection. 

The state district court ruled against the plaintiffs on all three allegations. 

“If Weston County doesn’t believe in that ruling, the answer is not to vacate their positions,” Driskill said. “The answer is to allocate money or use your county attorney and go challenge it in court.”

Driskill added that the resolution was typical of the far right, who “read the constitution, make their own ruling on it and then try to act. And that’s not how our system is designed to work at all.” 

The fourth Weston County lawmaker, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle), declined WyoFile’s request for comment. 

What now?

While Weston County Attorney Michael Stulken told commissioners at the meeting that he wasn’t opposed to the idea of the resolution, he cautioned that the requisite conditions — e.g. death or resignation of a sitting lawmaker — to declare a vacancy as laid out in state law had not been met. 

“So that’s my big rub on it,” Stulken said. 

While Weston County Commissioner Chair Don Taylor as well as Commissioners Garrett Borton and Vera Huber voted in favor of the resolution, Commissioners Ed Wagoner and Nathan Todd voted against it. 

Supporters said they expect other counties to follow their lead, particularly other rural counties that also lack exclusive representation. That includes Big Horn, Carbon, Crook, Hot Springs, Johnson, Niobrara, Sublette, and Washakie counties. 

At press time, none had done so.   

Maya Shimizu-Harris contributed to this story.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.