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US government role in Alaska elections questioned

Posted: June 26, 2012 - 12:03am  |  Updated: June 26, 2012 - 8:47am

JUNEAU — Alaska election officials should not be barred from implementing the new redistricting plan because a requirement that the plan be approved by the federal government is unconstitutional, attorneys for the state contend.

A federal three-judge panel is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday in the case brought by several Alaska Natives, who want the state barred from implementing the plan until the U.S. Justice Department weighs in on it. Justice has about a month yet to do so. Alaska’s primary is scheduled for Aug. 28.

A divided Alaska Supreme Court in May approved use of the plan for this year’s elections, but any plan must pass muster both with the courts and Justice.

Alaska is among the states required to submit redistricting plans or proposed election changes to Justice for review to ensure the plans aren’t discriminatory. But attorneys for the state in court filings say this requirement is unconstitutional and want the judges to deny the plaintiffs’ request.

The portion of the federal voting rights act requiring federal approval of such things as changes in polling locations or wording on forms is an “unnecessary, burdensome and unconstitutional” intrusion into state elections, said Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees Alaska elections and is a defendant in the case.

“Congress has no basis to micromanage Alaska’s elections,” he said in a written statement. “It’s time to get out from under this yoke.”

The state isn’t asking the judges to strike down what’s known as Section 5, but rather is raising the question of constitutionality as a defense against the plaintiffs’ claims. The judges, however, could still issue a finding on the issue of constitutionality, said Cori Badgley, media liaison for the state Department of Law.

Attorneys for the state contend that even if the section is constitutional, barring the state from implementing the plan until Justice makes a determination isn’t the way to go and that the plaintiffs haven’t justified their request for the injunction.

Scheduled to hear the case are U.S. District Court judges Ralph Beistline and James Singleton and Alex Kozinski, chief judge for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, said the board hasn’t taken a position regarding the constitutionality of Section 5. He said the board has made complying with the section a top priority throughout the process of redrawing Alaska’s legislative boundaries and worked to build a plan that would “fairly represent the political voice of the Alaska Native community.”

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