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Court decision victory for Alaska, which sued over law

Posted: June 26, 2013 - 12:02am
Alaska Redistricting Board Chairman John Torgerson is seen at a board meeting Friday, June 7, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The board met after a state court judge ordered them back to work on redrawing Alaska's political map and not to wait for a U.S. Supreme Court decision on provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)  Mark Thiessen
Mark Thiessen
Alaska Redistricting Board Chairman John Torgerson is seen at a board meeting Friday, June 7, 2013, in Anchorage, Alaska. The board met after a state court judge ordered them back to work on redrawing Alaska's political map and not to wait for a U.S. Supreme Court decision on provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

JUNEAU — The board redrawing Alaska’s political boundaries isn’t expected to need federal approval for whatever new map it comes up with, unless Congress acts first, under a decision Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A divided high court found unconstitutional a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that determines which states must get Justice Department approval for proposed election changes.

It did not rule on the requirement that states with a history of discrimination get federal approval for election changes. But the decision effectively does away with the mandate, unless Congress comes up with a new formula that Chief Justice John Roberts said meets “current conditions” in the United States.

Roberts said in the majority opinion that Congress, in renewing the law in 2006, relied on 40-year-old data that has “no logical relation to the present day.”

Michael White, an attorney for the Alaska Redistricting Board, said his understanding of the decision after a preliminary read is that the board won’t have to complete additional steps it had been required to go through in drafting a new map for the 2014 elections. The board still must comply with another provision of the Voting Rights Act that bars discriminatory voting practices and procedures, he said.

The board had been instructed to design a plan focused on state constitutional requirements, then determine if the plan complies with federal law. If not, the board was to make revisions deviating from the constitution when deviation was the only means available to meet the federal voting act requirements.

The board is gathering comments on draft plans geared toward satisfying state constitutional requirements. White said he has not yet analyzed them to know for sure if they do.

Tuesday’s decision is a victory for the state, which sued last year on allegations that the approval requirement and formula used to identify states to be approved are unconstitutional. The state argued the requirement was unwarranted and that no evidence exists to indicate Alaska should be considered among the jurisdictions “where voting discrimination has been most flagrant.”

Tuesday’s decision was not in that case but in a separate, related one. The state’s case was put on hold, pending a decision by the court in the case brought by Shelby County, Ala.

The Alaska Federation of Natives filed a brief in support of the federal government in the Shelby County case. It said Alaska has had a “long history of educational discrimination” that has resulted in a “legacy in which thousands of Alaska Natives cannot understand college-level English used on ballots and voting information.”

Margaret Paton-Walsh, an assistant attorney general, said the Supreme Court’s decision, in practical terms, disposes of the state’s lawsuit. While the state is pleased it won’t have to get approval from Washington for election changes, she said the decision should not affect other ways in which the Division of Elections works, such as its language assistance program.

Attorney General Michael Geraghty said in a release that the court decision “removes the taint of federal supervision of Alaska elections and gives the Division of Elections flexibility to respond to local needs and conditions without federal interference.” He said the state remains committed to ensuring all Alaska voters are able to vote, “free from race or language discrimination.”

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, in a Facebook post, called the ruling a decision against federal overreach. Mike Wenstrup, chairman of the state Democratic party, said it was unacceptable that Treadwell “would back the gutting of Alaska voter rights.”

Treadwell, a Republican, recently announced plans to seek the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Mark Begich.

Begich, in a statement, said he was disappointed with the court’s decision. He said many Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans still face challenges when it comes to voting.

Begich agreed times have changed since the formulas for deciding which states must get approval were developed, and he said Alaska has made some progress. But he said concerns remain, including a proposed voter ID bill still pending in the Alaska Legislature.

He said it’s time for Congress to revise the decades-old formulas and develop better methods to identify and eliminate sources of discrimination in voting.

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