Court decision victory for state, which sued

Becky Bohrer
Associated Press State Wire: Alaska
June 25, 2013

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Redistricting Board likely won't need to get 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. While it did not rule on the requirement that states with a history of discrimination get federal approval for election changes, the decision effectively does away with the approval requirement unless Congress comes up with a new formula that Chief Justice John Roberts said meets "current conditions" in the United States. Roberts, in the majority opinion, said 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 redistricting board, said his preliminary read of the decision is that the board won't have to go through the additional steps it had been required to go through in drafting a new map for the 2014 elections.

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 is 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 of Alaska, which sued last year arguing the approval requirement and formula used to identify states to be approved are unconstitutional. The state argued the approval requirement was unwarranted and that no evidence exists to indicate Alaska should be considered among other states or 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 Supreme Court ruling today against federal overreach on elections brings decision making home to Alaskans," Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said in a Facebook post, accompanied by a picture of him in front of the court. He said the state will protect Alaskans' rights and that he was proud of Alaska's attorney general for "taking this on."

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 currently 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.