The Department of Justice on Wednesday approved Alaska's latest legislative redistricting map, paving the way for the state's Division of Elections to proceed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, with planning for fall races.
Redistricting is a process that takes place every 10 years. In essence, boundaries of state legislative districts are modified to reflect population and demographic changes as identified in census data. Beyond the data, though, Alaska must also prove that redrawing boundaries does not dilute the voting power of Alaska Natives. That's because Natives, as a minority community of voters, have in the past been racially and culturally discriminated against in local, state and federal elections, and denied their constitutionally-guaranteed voting rights.
The Alaska Redistricting Board has had quite a go of getting a map in place for the 2012 elections that meets all of these objectives. The first map delivered by the board, way back in fall 2011, got critical federal approval, only to face problems from private citizens and even the state courts. Other maps followed, with districts redrawn to maintain cohesive constituencies. But with each challenge, the window of time grew smaller for Alaska to have a map in place in time for the state to prepare for fall elections.
Since mid-May, the state has awaited word from the Justice Department that the final map did not violate federal law. The state began to prepare for elections. A group of Alaska Natives, represented by the Native American Rights Fund, claimed such preparation was illegal under the Voting Rights Act and the special rules Alaska must follow. Back to court the map went. In fact, a panel of federal judges was scheduled to hear arguments Thursday over whether the state could even proceed with election planning without DOJ "preclearance."
Wednesday's letter from Washington, D.C., renders moot Thursday's big court showdown between the Alaska Native plaintiffs and the state, said Natalie Landreth, a Native American Rights Fund lawyer. A press release from the state confirmed that plaintiffs had withdrawn from the case shortly after Justice Department approval.
What's it all mean in the end? Alaskans now know without question what district they live in and which candidates are campaigning to represent them.
"Now that the Amended Proclamation Plan has been approved by both the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Justice, the 2012 elections can move forward without interruption," Alaska Redistricting Board Chairman John Torgerso was quoted saying in a press release. "This is an important milestone for the board and for the state of Alaska. We have worked hard to balance the multiple competing legal standards in building a plan that will fairly represent all Alaskans. Today's decision validates those efforts."
Even without the map, campaigning had already unofficially begun in earnest. Now Alaska's political primary season is officially under way. Let the public debate begin.
Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com