State challenge on hold pending high court review

JUNEAU — Alaska’s challenge to provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act is on hold pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

The nation’s highest court heard arguments Wednesday over whether there is an ongoing need for states with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department approval for redistricting plans or proposed election changes. The case was brought by Shelby County, Ala., but has implications for a number of states, including Alaska.

Alaska sued last year, arguing the approval requirement is unwarranted and that no evidence exists to indicate Alaska should be considered among other states or jurisdictions “where voting discrimination has been most flagrant.” The state has argued that the sections of the act are unconstitutional: the approval requirement and the formula used to identify states to be approved. The state asked that a judge either to block enforcement of Sections 4 and 5, period, or at least, in Alaska.

The state filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Alaska Federation of Natives filed a brief in support of the federal government, in which it said Alaska has had a “substantial record of discrimination.”

“The unvarnished truth is that Alaska is a textbook case for why the coverage formula remains valid and Section 5 remains a necessary response to widespread educational and voting discrimination against Alaska Native citizens,” the brief states.

Attorneys for the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska, says Alaska’s “long history of educational discrimination” has resulted in “a legacy in which thousands of Alaska Natives cannot understand college-level English used on ballots and voting information.

“The gulf between statewide turnout and Native turnout has barely narrowed since 1975, largely because of Alaska’s violations” of the Voting Rights Act, the brief states. “Today, seven years after reauthorization, Alaska Native turnout is 17 percent below the statewide average, and some places with a higher Limited English Proficiency (‘LEP’) population are more than 30 percent below.”

“Alaska’s rhetoric to the contrary is refuted by the reality of its sad legacy of excluding Native voters,” attorneys for the group said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, in a statement Wednesday, said the Voting Rights Act “has protected thousands of Alaskans from voter disenfranchisement that does still persist today.”

The Alaska Democrat said he hopes the court will carefully consider the arguments made by Alaska Natives “that we still need protections of the Voting Rights Act.”

“Unfortunately, there are still many obstacles when it comes to voting in Alaska and especially in rural Alaska where Native languages are still the primary language for elders,” he said.

The state, in its filing, said Alaska is the only state to ever bail out of Section 5, which requires the approvals for changes. “But since it was captured for the third time by the 1975 amendments — because it failed to provide written election materials in languages that almost no one could read — it has been ineligible to bail out,” attorneys for the state, led by Attorney General Michael Geraghty, said. “Thus, although Alaska has no history of voting discrimination, it nevertheless bears Section 5’s scarlet letter.”

The formula, at that time, was expanded to include jurisdictions that provided registration and election materials “only in English” and “had a sufficient population of a ‘single language minority,’” the brief states. The attorneys argue that the single-language group was not a single group at all but about 20 distinct Alaska Native languages spoken by different groups across the state.

“Until recently, these languages had no widely-read orthographies and few, if any, Alaska Natives were able to read them but unable also to read English,” the brief states. “Section 5 therefore covered Alaska because it failed to print election materials in languages that no one would have been able to read, except a handful of people who also could read English.”

State attorneys say sections 4 and 5 “nearly derailed” elections in Alaska last year. That’s reference to a lawsuit brought by several Alaska Natives, who sought to bar the state from implementing a redistricting plan after it was approved for use in the elections by the state Supreme Court, until the U.S. Justice Department had weighed in. The case was dropped when Justice gave its approval, known as preclearance.

“Although DOJ’s eventual preclearance mooted the lawsuit, the damage to the state’s sovereignty was done,” attorneys for the state said.

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Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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