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Supreme Court’s decision could affect Alaska redistricting map

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Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 12:06 am | Updated: 12:13 am, Tue Jun 25, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-expected ruling on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act could have major implications for the Alaska Redistricting Board’s ongoing effort to produce a viable election district map.

The decision on Shelby County v. Holder, which deals with the constitutionality of a federal law aimed at protecting the voting rights of minorities, is expected as early as today at 6 a.m AST. The Supreme Court’s term will come to an close at the end of this week.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires states that are deemed to have a history of discrimination against minorities to take extra measures to protect their voting power. In Alaska, Native people meet the act’s criteria for such protection.

Federal regulations require Alaska to use a formula to determine the minimum number of districts that must be effectively controlled by minority voters. The state also must obtain federal approval of any changes to voting procedures.

The Alaska Redistricting Board is working on a new election district map after its first attempt was rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court. The court said the board, before making adjustments to protect minorities, must first create a plan that adheres to the Alaska Constitution’s requirement that election districts be socially and economically integrated as well as compact. That procedure was established by the court in a decision from a lawsuit filed during Gov. Walter Hickel’s 1990-1994 term.

The redistricting board’s attorney, Michael White, said Monday the U.S. Supreme Court ruling could either abbreviate or lengthen the board’s job.

“If they strike down (the application of Section 5 of the VRA), the board’s adopted Hickel plan becomes the final plan and then they would submit it to the state court for approval,” White said. “So we’re literally only focused on the Alaska Constitution.”

By order of the court, the board already has produced seven draft maps and accepted three more statewide plans and one specific to the Ketchikan area. Each draft seeks to meet the state constitution’s demand for “compact” and “socio-economically integrated” districts, White said.

The board is hosting presentations on those maps in Anchorage on Friday and hosting a public hearing in Fairbanks on Monday. A final map could be accepted by mid-July.

It will get more tricky, White said, if the provisions of the Voting Rights Act are upheld.

Under the Hickel process, instead of finalizing the constitution-compliant plan, the board would test the map against the Section 5 provisions of the Voting Rights Act and make adjustments.

That process, White said, would include hiring a voting rights expert and spending additional time to review the 2012 election.

“If it’s not struck down and it’s upheld across the board, then we’re under the same situation under the same plan it has been for two years,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court also could find some sort of middle ground on the issue, which White said could cause even more confusion because it could be left open to interpretation.

The Voting Rights Act’s requirements were argued in a lawsuit brought against the Alaska Redistricting Board by two Fairbanks-area plaintiffs who objected to the election district map drawn by the board following the 2010 census.

The plaintiffs, George Riley and Ron Dearborn, argued that packaging Ester and parts of Goldstream Valley with a rural district reaching to the Bering Sea violated the Alaska constitutional standards.

The board pointed to the VRA to defend the district, saying it had to pull Democrats from Fairbanks to create the required number of effectively Native-controlled districts.

The Alaska Supreme Court never ruled on the Voting Rights Act in its deliberations, finding instead that the board hadn’t first followed the court-mandated Hickel process.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter:

@FDNMpolitics.

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