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Alaska sues to block parts of federal Voting Rights Act

Alex DeMarban
Jill Burke photo

Alaska efforts to prepare for Tuesday's elections nearly suffered a setback earlier this summer, when a group sued the state saying it wasn't following provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

The state ultimately prevailed, and apparently got ticked off. Now Alaska wants to block some of the 1965 act's pesky requirements altogether.

Alaska on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to declare provisions of the act unconstitutional and stop those provisions from being enforced in Alaska.

The act applies only to some states in an effort to prevent historical voting discrimination, and requires the states "submit redistricting plans or proposed election changes" to the Justice Department, the Associated Press reports.

The act "swept Alaska within its reach" after 1972 elections included "English-only" voting materials, the state argues in the new lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Columbia. That was a bad decision based on the idea that Alaska should have provided materials written in Alaska Native languages, the state claims.

"But Alaska Native languages are historically unwritten," the state's complaint alleges. "Although some nineteenth century missionaries attempted to develop orthographies for some of the twenty or so Alaska Native languages spoken in Alaska, it was not until the 1960s that linguists at the University of Alaska developed modern orthographies for these languages. In 1972, few, if any, Alaska Natives could read their native language but could not read English."

In Alaska's early days, there were indeed attempts to make written systems for Native languages, largely as a way to improve missionary outreach. Recently on Kodiak Island, instructional materials dating to the early 1900s for teaching a written Alutiiq language were rediscovered at St. Herman Russian Orthodox Seminary.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006, including for Alaska, but no evidence was presented showing why Alaska should be included with states where "voting discrimination has been most flagrant," the state argues.

Earlier this summer, the Native American Rights Fund cited the Voting Rights Act in a suit designed to stop the state from preparing for the primary election using a redistricting plan that hadn't received federal approval. The group argued that the preparations should be suspended until the state received approval from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, as required by the Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department signed off on the redistricting plan and the case was rendered moot, the state says in its suit. But the lawsuit could have disrupted the election, the state claims. The state also argues that the section of the act requiring federal approval, or preclearance, is onerous, requiring Justice Department approval even for small changes that don't involve minorities.

As it stands, Tuesday's vote is moving ahead as the state planned. For information about the primary, including polling places and hours, visit the state's Elections page.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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