Editor’s note: This article was updated to include comment from Taylor Bickford,executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, and JohnTorgerson, board chairman. A group of Alaska Natives wants a federal court to stop the statefrom using what it calls an “illegal” redistricting plan for the2012 election. Uncertain is what effect the lawsuit, requesting a preliminaryinjunction to stop that plan, will have on the Division ofElection’s efforts to hold an Aug. 28 primary elections. That election would use newly drawn boundaries for the state’s 40voting districts.
Those boundaries were approved under an emergencyredistricting plan that received the blessing of the state SupremeCourt to allow the 2012 elections to go forward. With the lines redrawn, elections will take place for 59 ofAlaska’s 60 legislative seats. Plaintiffs: Use old plan for now The Alaska Supreme Court’s approval is not enough, and the statehas already taken steps it shouldn’t have, says the suit. The U.S.Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Columbia needsto sign off on the redistricting plan that s before the JusticeDepartment now.
The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit want that planreplaced, at least for now, going back to the same districts thestate has used for the last decade. Suing are Robin Samuelson Jr., chief executive of the Bristol BayEconomic Development Corp. in Dillingham; Vicki Otte, chiefexecutive for MTNT, a Native corporation representing four Interiorvillages; Martin Moore, city manager for the village of Emmonak onthe lower Yukon River; and Russell Nelson, who has filed to run asa Democrat for the recently redrawn House seat out of Dillingham. The Native American Rights Fund filed the lawsuit on their behalfin the U.S. Wall Rendering Machine
District Court in Alaska. The suit names Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who supervises the state’selections division, and Elections Director Gail Fenumiai. Treadwell said by phone Friday afternoon that he’d just been servednotice of the lawsuit. Automatic Plastering Machine
He’d been out of the office much of the day,flipping burgers at a military appreciation picnic. “My comment is a simple one liner: We believe the courts will allowAlaskans to participate in this year’s election,” both the primaryand the general election, he said. But will the courts allow the state to use the new plan? “Whatever the courts decide we will follow,” he said. The state isalready following the orders of the state Supreme Court, including”to move forward and seek Department of Justice approval.” Fenumiai could not be reached for comment on Friday. Fewer Native-controlled districts The lawsuit grows out of a fear of many Alaska Natives. Mortar Rendering Machine Manufacturer
They worrythe emergency plan, for the first time in history, will reduce thenumber of districts controlled by Native voters, from eight to six.Key Native leaders also fear that if the 2012 elections are heldunder that plan, it will set a long-term precedent that under theVoting Rights Act will reset the number of Native-controlleddistricts at six for future elections. “When we lose those seats, rural Alaska starts getting hurt,” saidOtte. Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska RedistrictingBoard, said the argument that two Alaska Native districts will belost is without merit. The new plan is “substantially similar” to a previous planpre-cleared by the Department of Justice last fall, Bickford wrotein an email.
“The only changes made to rural areas came as a result of the needto reunite the Aleutian Chain into a single House district.Additionally, Voting Rights Act expert Dr. Lisa Handley has issueda report finding that the (new plan) maintains the required levelof Alaska Native Voting strength and should” also be precleared, hesaid. Instead of delving into that argument, the lawsuit simply allegesthat the new redistricting plan, approved by the AlaskaRedistricting Board in April, violates the Voting Rights Act.Redistricting requires the blessing of the Department of Justice orthe U.S. District Court in Columbia, the lawsuit claims.
“There can be no bigger voting change,” than an entirely newredistricting plan, the suit states. The Division of Elections website says the plan is “pending preclearance” from the JusticeDepartment. But the board waited seven weeks before doing so, the suit argues. The state has already taken steps for the primary election that itshould not have before final approval, said Landreth. It set acandidate filing deadline of June 1 that has now passed.
About 150candidates have filed, and the state’s web page said it wouldcertify candidates using the amended plan, the suit says. It’s against the law to take such steps “under a map that youdon t know whether or not is legally enforceable,” Landreth said. For one thing, that creates a problem for candidates trying tocampaign because they can’t be sure who their constituencies willbe, she said. The larger Native concerns over the plan that are not part of thelawsuit have been recently presented by Native corporate leaders in a meeting with Justice Department officials inWashington, D.C., according to a report on KTUU . Otte, a member of a group called Alaskans for Fair Redistricting,said Native voters will be hurt in the new plan because District 38would be lumped with well-populated areas outside Fairbanks such asEster that are predominantly non-Native communities.
An analysis ofpast voting records showed that Native voters, who have longcontrolled that district, no longer would, she said. Rural disadvantages Part of the problem is that villages are at a disadvantage when itcomes to voting, compared to urban areas. Many rural areas lack theearly voting process that expands voting opportunities in cities.And absentee voting by mail is severely hamstrung in many villages.Some of them don’t receive regular mail flights, so sending andreceiving documents can take days or weeks. Another key gripe for Native critics of the plan that also goesunmentioned in the suit: It creates two key rural districts inSouthwest Alaska with hub cities that don’t economically orculturally fit their new constituencies. For example, Dillingham in Bristol Bay would be lumped with much ofthe Kuskokwim region that’s long been associated with Bethel, notthe Bristol Bay and Aleutian coastal areas at its back door.
“I don’t think they could have done a worse job if they’d workedharder at it,” said Samuelson, referring to the redistrictingboard. John Torgerson, redistricting board chairman, said in an emailedstatement that the board ” took its responsibility to the Alaska Native community veryseriously.” The “insight” of board member Marie Greene, current chief executiveof NANA, a Native regional corporation, was “particularly importantas the board set out to draw a plan that would avoid (reducingAlaska Native districts) while representing the socio-economicinterests of the Alaska Native community to the greatest extentpossible.” Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.