Alaska Has Stake in Voting Rights Case
U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on "pre-clearance" by the Department of Justice
ANCHORAGE - The future of Alaska’s election law hung in the balance Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving the federal Voting Rights Act.
The outcome could affect legislative races as soon as next year.
Wednesday the justices heard oral arguments in the case brought by a county in Alabama seeking to get out from under supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Alaska is one of several states that are required to get pre-clearance -- that is, advance approval -- of any changes in election law, including post-Census redistricting.
Both the State of Alaska and the Alaska Federation of Natives have filed “friend of the court” briefs in the case -- those are intended to influence the outcome, even though neither is a party in this case.
AFN says discrimination still exists against Alaska Natives, citing lower election turnout rates than in the general population and a history of court rulings about disparities in education funding.
But Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who supervises state elections in Alaska, says the state simply is tired of being micro-management by the Department of Justice, which has to approve every change in a polling place or a voter registration form.
"If AFN thinks there's discrimination, they should come see us, because we have absolutely no interest in discriminating. We put in a new absentee ballot electronic system that allows people to vote early, any part of the state. We have said that we'd accept tribal IDs at the polls."
But Kay Brown of the Alaska Democratic Party insists that there is still discrimination in the administration of elections.
"Discrimination still exists in Alaska today, and these protections are needed to ensure that Alaskans have complete access to the polls. This attack by Treadwell and Parnell on our voting rights is just part of a bigger attack that's going on in Juneau, where Republicans are pushing legislation to require people to have a photo ID in order to vote."
(Gov. Parnell and Treadwell have not taken a public position on the voter ID bill.)
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Alabama county, that would have the effect of freeing Alaska from special DOJ oversight.
That means the Alaska Redistricting Board, which has to draw new legislative boundaries for elections from 2014 to 2020, would be free to only consider the Alaska Constitution in making the new lines.
The state Supreme Court has ordered the board to revisit the map it created last year because justices said the board tried to satisfy the Voting Rights Act before applying state constitutional standards.
An Alaska assistant attorney general, Margaret Paton-Walsh, attended today's oral arguments, and predicted a 5-4 decision by the court, with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote, as he often is.
Paton-Walsh says there is a slim chance of a narrowly crafted ruling that would allow Alaska’s own litigation against the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act to go forward.