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Judge allows election to proceed, despite redistricting concerns

Amanda Coyne

A federal court in Alaska ruled on Friday against a group of Alaska Natives who wanted the court to stop the state from preparing for what it called an "illegal" redistricting plan for the 2012 elections, pending a ruling from a court.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason found that the preparations for the election will not cause “specified irreparable damage,” prior to an upcoming hearing on the plan.

She did not, however, express an opinion on the merits of the pending redistricting plan. On June 28, a three-judge panel will consider whether election planning can proceed pending final say from the Department of Justice on whether the plan violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

That election would use newly drawn boundaries for the state's 40 voting districts. Those boundaries were approved under an emergency redistricting plan that received the blessing of the state Supreme Court to allow the 2012 elections to go forward.

With the lines redrawn, elections will take place for 59 of Alaska's 60 legislative seats.

The lawsuit grows out of a fear of many Alaska Natives being disenfranchised. They worry that the redrawn districts will reduce the number of districts controlled by Native voters, from eight to six. Key Native leaders also fear that if the 2012 elections are held under the current plan, it will set a long-term precedent that under the Voting Rights Act will reset the number of Native-controlled districts at six for future elections.

"When we lose those seats, rural Alaska starts getting hurt," said Vicki Otte, chief executive for MTNT, a Native corporation representing four Interior villages.

The Native American Rights Fund filed the lawsuit on their behalf in the U.S. District Court in Alaska.

The group asked that Gleason issue a temporary restraining order on the state’s preparation plan for the Aug. 28 primary.

“It’s important to remember the judge’s ruling is not an approval of the redistricting plant,” said Natalie Landreth, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund.

“We are pleased that Judge Gleason has allowed us to continue preparing for the election for the time being,” said Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Alaska Division of Elections. “In order to make sure that the election is held on time and in a way that allows everyone to exercise his or her right to vote, it’s important that we prepare now.”

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com