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Nebraska tribes sue county, alleging Voting Rights Act violations

Thurston County in northeast Nebraska, where the reservations for the Winnebego and Omaha Tribes are located, has twice been the subject of federal court cases in connection to redistricting, a pattern that is repeating itself, the complaint states.

OMAHA, Neb. (CN) — Two Native American tribes are suing the Nebraska county where their reservations are located, alleging a redistricting plan for county board seats adopted after the 2020 Census discriminates against the tribal members who live there.

In the complaint, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska allege the Thurston County Board of Supervisors did not provide American Indian voters with proper notice and an opportunity to review a proposed redistricting plan before it was adopted.

The redistricting plan was not provided to the public or the tribes before the Jan. 3, 2022, meeting in which the board voted to adopt it, the complaint says. "Instead, it was only made available to the public after its adoption."

Two members of the Omaha Tribe and seven members of the Winnebago tribe also joined the suit as plaintiffs.

According to the complaint, white people hold five of seven defendant Board of Supervisor seats, despite comprising about 36% of the county's total population and 43% of the voting age population. The 2020 Census found nearly 60% of Thurston County's population was American Indian.

The American Indian population in Thurston County is large and geographically compact enough to constitute a majority in at least 4 districts, the complaint says.

Plaintiffs are seeking an order declaring the redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act.

The defendants are the county, the board, the seven supervisors who make up the board and the Thurston County Clerk. Attempts to reach board members Thursday evening were generally unsuccessful. But James Price Sr., one of the members, said the plan was adopted hastily, but it was not done with evil intent.

“I believe the tribes could have got a little more time to address that redistricting," said Price, who is also a member and employee of the Winnebago Tribe.

Price was the sole member of the board to vote against the plan, supporting a redistricting plan put forth by the tribes instead.

When the board drew up the district lines, he said, they did it in roughly the same places they had been drawn for decades. To his knowledge, no one tried to diminish the votes of Winnebago or Omaha tribal members.

“I hate to be calling this any kind of racial thing," he said. "I’ve tried my best to break down those racial lines between the county and the tribes.”

Supervisor Davin French, who the complaint says voted for the plan, declined to comment when reached by phone Thursday evening.

The complaint states that Thurston County has been the subject of federal court cases involving Voting Rights Act violations in two prior redistricting plans. "Defendants have repeated their pattern of intentional discrimination in their most recent Board of Supervisors redistricting map."

Thurston County is located in northeast Nebraska, with the county seat of Pender about 88 miles northwest of Omaha. The county's 2021 population estimate was 6,620, according to the Census Bureau.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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