State courts have rejected both the Alaska Redistricting Board’s initial plan and its revised plan as insufficiently compliant with the state constitution, but in May the Alaska Supreme Court accepted the revised plan for interim use in this year’s elections. The use of that plan was challenged last week, however, in a lawsuit that claims doing so before the plan receives preclearance from theU.S. Justice Department violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
In the state’s filing, announced Thursday, officials say Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutionally requires extraordinary federal intrusion into the conduct of elections. The lawsuit also challenges the fact that the 1965 law affects only Alaska and a handful of mostly Southern states, while leaving other states’ electoral processes untouched.
“Under Section 5, if the state wants to move a polling place across the street, it has to get federal permission. If it wants to change the wording on a form, it has to get federal permission,” Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees the state Division of Elections and is a defendant in the lawsuit, said in a Thursday statement. “This federal intrusion into our state elections is unnecessary, burdensome, and unconstitutional. Congress has no basis to micromanage Alaska’s elections. It’s time to get out from under this yoke.”
Attorney General Michael Geraghty says the state’s challenge is limited to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and doesn’t target provisions banning voter discrimination or requiring the provision of language assistance to voters.
“We are challenging only the portion of the law that forces Alaska to get federal permission before making any changes to its electoral process,” Geraghty said. “The Constitution does not authorize the federal government to dictate every detail of our elections.”
Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, said in a statement Friday that the board was not a party to the state's filing in the lawsuit.
“The Alaska Redistricting Board has not joined the Attorney General in this action nor have we taken a position regarding the constitutionality of any aspect of the Federal Voting Rights Act," Bickford said. "Complying with Section 5 has been a top priority of our Board over the course of the redistricting process and we have worked hard to build a non-retrogressive plan that will fairly represent the political voice of the Alaska Native community.”
The state says it provided a map of the interim plan to the Justice Department for preclearance on May 25, but has not heard back from the department. Since then, officials have used the interim plan to prepare for Aug. 28 primaries, while U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason denied a request by plaintiffs in the lawsuit to halt the state’s election preparations.
That request will also be considered by a three-judge panel in Anchorage, during oral arguments on Thursday, June 28 at 1:30 p.m.
The state has engaged in other legal challenges against the federal government in recent years, including a 2011 appeal of a federal court's ruling that polar bears were affected by global warming and a 2010 lawsuit seeking to overturn an offshore-drilling moratorium enacted after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.