ANCHORAGE — A federal judge in Anchorage heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit seeking to temporarily bar state election officials from implementing a new redistricting plan.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason said after the hearing she would issue a written decision later Thursday or Friday in the case brought by several Alaska Native plaintiffs against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and state Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.
Plaintiffs allege the state is violating the federal voting rights act by moving ahead with election preparations under a new redistricting plan before the plan is “precleared,” or approved, by the U.S. Department of Justice. They also have requested that a three-judge panel hear their case and block the state from using the plan until it wins preclearance from the Justice Department, which could also deny the plan or ask for more information.
As part of their request, plaintiffs also are seeking to have candidate filings under the plan declared null and void.
“Those of us in this room right now may be in the wrong precincts,” plaintiffs’ attorney Natalie Landreth said. “We may in coming weeks receive voting cards that have wrong districts on them.”
Landreth said the state is going on the presumption that the Justice Department will grant the preclearance. But until that happens, she said, the state would be breaking the law.
Attorneys for the state say the plaintiffs have not justified their request. They have not shown that the Elections Division would do anything that could not be undone should the three-judge panel block the plan, said assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh. Thus, they haven’t reached the legal standard, one that demonstrates irreparable harm would result if the state continues with the plan, Paton-Walsh said.
The Alaska Redistricting Board asked the Justice Department to review the plan after the state Supreme Court last month signed off on its use for the 2012 elections. Candidates filed to run based on the boundaries of that plan.
Any plan must pass muster both with the courts and the Department of Justice; Alaska is among the states required to submit their redistricting plans or proposed election changes to the Justice Department for review to ensure the plans aren’t discriminatory.
The board has said the plan is substantially similar to one precleared by the department in October. It’s not the same plan, because the board was forced to rework it as a result of legal challenges.
State attorneys have said that if the Division of Elections continues its election preparations using the redistricting plan, and that plan is ultimately precleared by the Justice Department, the state will have a “normal” election cycle. If the division is not allowed to continue in its preparations, “the elections may be seriously disrupted, and unnecessarily disrupted, even if the plan is ultimately precleared,” they said.
The Justice Department review process can take up to 60 days, though the redistricting board asked for an expedited review. Alaska’s primary is scheduled for Aug. 28.
The plaintiffs include Russell S. Nelson, who filed as a candidate for the state House before the lawsuit was filed but has since withdrawn his candidacy.
Bohrer reported from Juneau, Alaska.