Supreme Court decision on Voting Rights Act has broad impact in Alaska

rmauer@adn.comJune 25, 2013 

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to strike down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act will have wide impacts in Alaska, giving freer hands to officials and legislators trying to change how Alaskans vote.

Alaska was one of nine states, mostly in the South, required to get preclearance from the Justice Department before changing election districts, polling places, or election laws. But no longer -- the Supreme Court removed the preclearance requirements from the law while leaving intact its anti-discrimination provisions.

Alaska's inclusion in the historic Civil Rights Era legislation stemmed from a history of discriminating against Native language speakers who were offered no assistance with ballots printed in English, even when they contained complex and baffling ballot measures. Once Alaska was brought under the law, in amendments passed by Congress in 1975 to protect voters lacking English proficiency, the preclearance requirement also governed redistricting to ensure Natives weren't gerrymandered out of the Legislature.

The Parnell administration said the preclearance requirements were overbearing and prevented efficient state management of elections. It joined the lawsuit brought by Shelby County, Ala., that resulted in Tuesday's 5-4 decision. The state also filed its own lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., challenging the law, but that case that was put on hold pending a decision in the Shelby County case.

The Native American Rights Fund office in Anchorage joined the opposition to Shelby County's lawsuit.

The remainder of the Voting Rights Act remains in force, including provisions that would require Alaska to continue to provide language assistance and to not discriminate against rural voters. But where the Justice Department could intervene before any changes in Alaska law were implemented, it would now take a lawsuit by the federal government or private parties, with potentially years of litigation, to resolve challenges to state decisions.

The Supreme Court didn't say preclearance itself was unconstitional. It faulted the law for using discrimination data going back to the 1960s and 1970s to justify the federal intervention. It said Congress could reestablish preclearance rules that treated states differently, like the nine states in the discarded law, but it would have to use fresh data to prove it was necessary.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Alaska's top elections official, welcomed the Supreme Court decision.

"You could be doing the right thing but there's no way to get out of the micro-management," he said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is raising money for his U.S. Senate race in the Republican primary. "I have a notebook on the desk that's several inches thick with copies of preclearance requests we have made to the Justice Department for some of the most minor things."

Treadwell said the state's language-assistance program now provides help to Alaska Natives and Filipino speakers of Tagalog, making the Voting Rights Act unnecessary. Asked whether the law forced the state to establish language assistance in the first place, Treadwell said he didn't know.

"I wasn't there when those decisions were made," he said. But given Alaska's progress, it should be allowed to get out from under the preclearance requirement, he said.

In a statement, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Alaska Natives still face challenges at the polls, such as a bill in the Alaska Legislature that would require a photo ID to vote. He said he was "disappointed" in the Supreme Court decision.

Bob Williams, a Democrat from Wasilla seeking to replace Treadwell at lieutenant governor, said the preclearance rule would have stopped measures like the photo ID law, which he said was discriminatory to Bush voters.

"Access to voting is not the same throughout the state," Williams said. "We've seen polling place closed, we've seen access to early voting in person being closed."

The most immediate effect of the Supreme Court decision will be in redistricting, which is already overdue.

The Alaska Redistricting Board, under orders from the Alaska Supreme Court and a Fairbanks Superior Court judge to recraft the legislative boundaries it produced for the 2012 election, had planned to wait till after the justices ruled, not knowing whether the board's plan would require Justice Department preclearance. But the state courts prodded the board to get started earlier, telling it that to meet the requirements of Alaska's Constitution, it needed to draw legal boundaries under Alaska law first, and then adapt those lines, if necessary, to the Voting Rights Act.

The board began producing new plans in work sessions over the past two weeks.

The Supreme Court decision now will ease the path for the voter photo ID bill sought by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage. The bill failed to get to the House floor last session after opposition surfaced over its effects in the Bush, where driver's licenses are much less common than in urban areas.

It will also be easier for the state Elections Division to close or move polling places, especially in rural areas.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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