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Voting Rights Act: What does ruling mean for Alaskans?

Suzanna Caldwell
On a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down key provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday, and with it, likely streamlined ongoing efforts to redraw Alaska's legislative boundaries. Loren Holmes photo

The U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act Tuesday in a ruling that may streamline Alaska's ongoing efforts to redraw its electoral map.

Gov. Sean Parnell and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell welcomed the decision, saying it removes the “taint of federal supervision” from Alaska elections. But without the federal oversight few safeguards remain to protect Alaska Native voters, said defenders of the 1965 law said.

The court ruled 5-4 that a formula used by Congress to identify states subject to federal elections oversight, under the act, were outdated and unfair.

The court did not strike down a provision in Shelby County v. Holder allowing special federal oversight -- Section 5 of the act -- but said Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to identify which states should be covered, effectively nullifying Section 5.

Section 5 of the VRA gave the Department of Justice power to regulate elections in states with a history of ballot-box discrimination against minorities. Alaska was among the states regulated under Section 5 due to English language tests once used to impact Alaska Native voting eligibility. 

The act currently covers nine states -- mostly in the south -- but includes Alaska and parts of seven other states. It requires those states to obtain “pre-clearance” at the federal level to any changes to voting procedures. Those can include minor changes, like moving a polling station, or major ones, like approving redistricting maps.

The Alaska Redistricting Board has been working on a new election district map after its last attempt was rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court, which said before making adjustments to protect minorities, the districts must be socially and economically integrated, as well as compact.

With the federal requirement no longer in play, the board will only have to meet requirements of the Alaska Constitution in the next map.

“As I see it, the board has been drafting the 'Hickel Plan' and it's now the new redistricting plan,” said Michael White, the redistricting board's attorney.

The Hickel Plan, sometimes referred to as the Hickel Process, is a three-step procedure established by an Alaska Supreme Court decision from a lawsuit filed during Gov. Walter Hickel's 1990-94 term. White said the first step in the process, in which the redistricting board draws the map based on the state formula will stay the same. Steps two and three, which involved provisions set forth under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, will no longer apply.

“The bottom line is that the process is significantly shorter,” White said.

The state praised the ruling. Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty said in a statement that “the decision frees Alaska from the onerous requirement that it ask permission from the federal government before making any change to its election laws or procedures, no matter how small.” However, he stood by the state's commitment to protect voting rights.

“Alaska remains steadfast to ensure all Alaska voters are able to exercise their right to vote, free from race or language discrimination,” he said. “We will continue to protect voting rights and to provide minority language Alaska voters with the assistance they require to express their political will at the ballot box.”

Last year, Alaska filed its own lawsuit in opposition to the Voting Rights Act preapproval requirement, challenging the preclearance requirement. Alaska v. Holder was on hold until the Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby. Joshua Decker, interim executive director of ACLU of Alaska, said the trial courts will now review the Supreme Court decision before deciding whether or not to hear Alaska's case.

The Department of Law also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Shelby case. The ACLU and the Native American Rights Fund filed briefs in opposition.

Calling on Congress

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich condemned the court ruling and defended the safeguards for Native voters ensured under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. He noted in a statement that as recently as two years ago Justice Department had intervened in Alaska elections to protect rural voters' rights.

Begich called upon Congress to update the law with better methods to identify and eliminate sources of voting discrimination. Whether there's political will to revamp VRA is another matter. 

Alaska Natives are the largest minority group in the state, making up 19 percent of the population. [They're also the largest indigenous voting bloc in the U.S.] Access to polls, and English language tests once used to disqualify Native voters have been addressed under federal oversight. ACLU of Alaska's Decker noted that just two years ago, DOJ compelled the state to reconsider eliminating several voting precincts in rural Alaska -- specifically in Tatitlek, Pedro Bay and Levelock. Without the stipulation, it would have forced voters in the small, predominantly Native Alaskan villages to travel up to 77 miles -- all off the road system -- to exercise the right to vote.

In 2007, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act with broad bipartisan support.

The Alaska Redistricting Board has produced seven draft maps and accepted three more statewide election map plans. The board will host presentations on those maps across the state this week, including one in Anchorage, Friday. A final version of the map is expected in July.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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