The Supreme Court Tuesday disqualified a section of the Voting Rights Act that has been integral to how Alaska operates its elections and redistricting process. The 5-4 decision ruled Section 4 of the law unconstitutional. That means lawmakers in nine states, including Alaska, now have greater freedom to implement voting laws and approve redistricting plans without pre-clearance from the Department of Justice.
The decision is being hailed as a boon for states’ rights, but voters’ rights advocates see it as a step backward.
The State of Alaska joined the lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, in March. The petitioners maintained that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act violated the Tenth Amendment, which guarantees states the right to regulate elections. The lawsuit also stated that there is a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the states and that Section 4 ignored that principle because it only applied to nine states. Those nine states were singled out after the act passed in 1965 because of their histories of of voter discrimination.
The petitioners argued that Section 4 of the law made sense when it was first passed, but that nearly 50 years later it was unnecessary because voter turnout and registration was no longer unequal based on race. The lawsuit quoted the Northwest Austin v. Holder decision which states, “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”
“I’m worried for the whole state,” said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau .
Alaska has made great strides since 1965, Kerttula said. She believes Section 4 actually protected Alaska’s state constitution from “those who would hurt it.”
“You don’t want to stop people from having the right to vote,” Kerttula said. “Now someone will have to sue to protect the state constitution.”
Kerttula said she’s concerned that voters in rural Alaska would be negatively impacted by the court’s decision.
“Some of the members of the current majority have been very active in trying to restrict voters’ rights,” Kerttula said, referencing proposed legislation that would require a voter to have photo identification before being given a ballot. “I’m very strongly for states’ rights, but you have to make sure you’re treating everyone fairly.”
The Alaska Redistricting Board has only one task to complete every 10 years. After the U.S. census is completed, board members are appointed to redraw Alaska’s political districts according to new population data. Members of the board are appointed by the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. The appointments might be political, but proposed plans have always required pre-clearance by the Department of Justice, until now.
“We need to completely change how redistricting is done,” said Senator Dennis Egan, D-Juneau. “It needs to be completely taken out of the political realm.”
The redistricting board is currently way overdue on delivering a map with new political boundaries that pass muster with the Department of Justice. Now that federal oversight is a thing of the past, the redistricting board can move forward with just three affirmative votes from its members.
“It really worries me that it’s taken us decades to develop better methods and it’s all going to go by the wayside,” Egan said.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, feels differently about the court’s decision. She said that while the outcome of the redistricting board’s plans is still uncertain, it’s about time for the state’s political boundaries to be settled
“I’m looking forward to the outcome,” Muñoz said. “This has been a very tumultuous time.”
Muñoz also said that she has confidence that the Division of Elections will continue to accommodate voters.
Alaska Native organizations and corporations pushed a massive campaign to increase participation in the 2010 census. Liz Medicine Crow from Kake is president and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, a policy and research non-profit focused on Alaska Native issues. Medicine Crow said one of the main reasons Native organizations advocated so strongly for census participation was to ensure that redistricting didn’t negatively impact their communities.
“Alaska is one of those places where we have a real challenge with voter turnouts and language issues,” Medicine Crow said.
The decision was disheartening, Medicine Crow said, but the institute is looking toward working with other organizations, like the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Alaska’s congressional delegation to make certain that Alaska Natives aren’t marginalized in the elections process.
“I’m sure anybody who cares about a democratic society will ensure that inequities are addressed,” Medicine Crow said.
In a prepared statement, Attorney General Michael Geraghty said that the State of Alaska welcomes the court’s decision and that it gives the Division of Elections “flexibility to respond to local needs.”
“The State’s commitment to Alaska remains steadfast to ensure all Alaska voters are able to exercise their right to vote, free from race or language discrimination,” the statement read. “We will continue to protect voting rights and to provide minority language Alaska voters with the assistance they require to express their political will at the ballot box.”
The court’s decision does leave open the opportunity for Congress to revise the Voting Rights Act.
“Our country has changed,” the decision states, “and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.