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Alaska sues over provisions of Voting Rights Act

Posted: August 22, 2012 - 12:06am

JUNEAU — The state of Alaska on Tuesday sued to block enforcement of provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Alaska is among the states required to submit redistricting plans or proposed election changes to the U.S. Justice Department for review to ensure the plans aren’t discriminatory. But the state, in its lawsuit, argues this is unwarranted — and that no evidence before Congress, at the time the act was reauthorized in 2006, indicated that Alaska should be considered among other states or jurisdictions “where voting discrimination has been most flagrant. Indeed,” the lawsuit states, “no such evidence exists.”

The state argues two sections of the act are unconstitutional: the approval requirement and the formula used to identify states to be approved, which the state says wrongly puts Alaska on the list. The state is asking a judge either to block enforcement of Sections 4 and 5, period, or at least, in Alaska.

The Section 5 approval, or preclearance, requirement “is onerous and time-consuming, creates uncertainty and delay and places Alaska’s elections at the mercy of Department of Justice attorneys in Washington, D.C.,” the lawsuit states. “Alaska cannot make the smallest change to its election procedures, even those that do not affect minority voting, without prior permission of the Department of Justice.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., names U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as the defendant. It says that state and federal laws “continue to require Alaska to ensure that every eligible voter can effectively participate in Alaska’s elections.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to an email request seeking comment.

The case picks up where another in Alaska left off.

Earlier this year, in a lawsuit over Alaska’s new redistricting plan, attorneys for the state argued the requirement that the plan be approved by the federal government was unconstitutional. The case was brought by several Alaska Natives, who sought to bar the state from implementing the plan, after it was approved for use in this year’s elections by the state Supreme Court, until the Justice Department weighed in. The case was dropped when Justice gave its blessing, or what’s known as preclearance.

But the matter “jeopardized the state’s ability to hold its elections,” the state said in the new lawsuit.

“Had the plaintiffs succeeded in obtaining the injunction they sought and had the Department of Justice not precleared the plan when it did, Alaska likely would not have been able to hold a timely 2012 primary or general election,” the lawsuit states.

Given the ongoing uncertainty over Alaska’s political boundaries beyond this year, and the potential need for a new map for elections in 2014, Alaska Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh said the state decided to sue now, in part to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier this year — where a court had signed off on a plan but the Justice Department had not. Suing now also provides more time for the case to play out, so it wouldn’t have to be rushed.

The executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, Taylor Bickford, said the board “has made protecting the political voice of the Alaska Native community a top priority over the course of the redistricting process.” In a statement, he noted that the board isn’t a party to the lawsuit and hasn’t taken a position on the constitutionality of provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

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