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Feds approve Alaska election maps

Decision clears way for August primary; first absentee ballots to go out tomorrow

Posted: June 28, 2012 - 12:06am

The U.S. Department of Justice gave surprisingly quick approval to Alaska’s redistricting plan Wednesday, clearing the way for the first ballots to be mailed out on schedule tomorrow.

The federal approval, known as “preclearance” also appears to make moot an ongoing legal challenge to the election that tried to block Alaska from moving forward with an election before the new redistricting plan was approved.

That threatened to delay the primary election, and was to be the subject of a hearing in federal court today.

“We’re quite pleased that the election won’t be disrupted by any litigation and that Alaskans will be able to proceed with voting in the Aug, 28 primary election,” said Gail Fenumiai, state elections director.

The federal agency approved what’s known as the “Amended Proclamation Plan,” the new election district map that adds Skagway, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs and Petersburg into the downtown Juneau and Douglas Island House District.

That had been opposed by Petersburg, but the Redistricting Board said it was necessary to comply with a Voting Rights Act-inspired goal of creating a Native influence district in Southeast.

Alaska Redistricting Board Chair John Torgerson called the federal approval “an important milestone for the Board and the state of Alaska.”

The federal preclearance certifies that the state’s plan does not discriminate against or reduce the voting strength of Alaska Natives,” he said.

“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,” Torgerson said.

Redistricting Board Executive Director Taylor Bickford said the board had requested expedited review of the plan from the Department of Justice, but its predecessor board did the same thing following the 2000 U.S. Census, and but review had still taken 45 or 46 days.

Bickford said they were confident the plan would win approval as it was crafted to comply with the Alaska Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and a largely similar plan had earlier received preclearance.

“We were confident all along that the plan was going to be precleared,” he said.

The Native American Rights Fund had brought the ongoing challenge to the plan, though its objections were related to areas outside Southeast. The legal challenge, though, threatened to delay or change the election for the entire state.

Other challenges to the plan may result in future changes, but the 2012 elections will now definitely be carried out under the Amended Proclamation Plan, Bickford said.

Bickford said the board is thankful for both the ruling and the speed with which the Department of Justice acted.

“We were confident, but when you have this looming decision out there you never really know,” he said. “We’re definitely relieved today.”

Fenumiai said the first ballots are required to go out 60 days before the election, and will be mailed out Friday. Those go to Alaskans living or traveling overseas, such as those with the military, or those who don’t have access to polling places due to distance or terrain, she said.

“We’re not going to be able to proceed (with the election) with all of our normal statutory and regulatory timelines,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250, or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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