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Alaska Natives group sues to stop state from holding 'illegal' primary election

Alex DeMarban

Editor's note: This article was updated to include comment from Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, and John Torgerson, board chairman.

A group of Alaska Natives wants a federal court to stop the state from using what it calls an "illegal" redistricting plan for the 2012 election.  

Uncertain is what effect the lawsuit, requesting a preliminary injunction to stop that plan, will have on the Division of Election's efforts to hold an Aug. 28 primary elections.

That election would use newly drawn boundaries for the state's 40 voting districts. Those boundaries were approved under an emergency redistricting plan that received the blessing of the state Supreme Court to allow the 2012 elections to go forward.

With the lines redrawn, elections will take place for 59 of Alaska's 60 legislative seats.

Plaintiffs: Use old plan for now

The Alaska Supreme Court's approval is not enough, and the state has already taken steps it shouldn't have, says the suit. The U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Columbia needs to sign off on the redistricting plan that’s before the Justice Department now. The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit want that plan replaced, at least for now, going back to the same districts the state has used for the last decade.

Suing are Robin Samuelson Jr., chief executive of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham; Vicki Otte, chief executive for MTNT, a Native corporation representing four Interior villages; Martin Moore, city manager for the village of Emmonak on the lower Yukon River; and Russell Nelson, who has filed to run as a Democrat for the recently redrawn House seat out of Dillingham.    

The Native American Rights Fund filed the lawsuit on their behalf in the U.S. District Court in Alaska.  

The suit names Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who supervises the state's elections division, and Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.

Treadwell said by phone Friday afternoon that he'd just been served notice of the lawsuit. 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 allow Alaskans to participate in this year's election," both the primary and 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 is already 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. They worry the emergency plan, for the first time in history, will reduce the number of districts controlled by Native voters, from eight to six. Key Native leaders also fear that if the 2012 elections are held under that plan, it will set a long-term precedent that under the Voting Rights Act will reset the number of Native-controlled districts at six for future elections.

"When we lose those seats, rural Alaska starts getting hurt," said Otte.

Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, said the argument that two Alaska Native districts will be lost is without merit.

The new plan is "substantially similar" to a previous plan pre-cleared by the Department of Justice last fall, Bickford wrote in an email.

"The only changes made to rural areas came as a result of the need to reunite the Aleutian Chain into a single House district. Additionally, Voting Rights Act expert Dr. Lisa Handley has issued a report finding that the (new plan) maintains the required level of Alaska Native Voting strength and should" also be precleared, he said. 

 Instead of delving into that argument, the lawsuit simply alleges that the new redistricting plan, approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board in April, violates the Voting Rights Act. Redistricting requires the blessing of the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Columbia, the lawsuit claims.

"There can be no bigger voting change," than an entirely new redistricting plan, the suit states.

The Division of Elections website says the plan is "pending preclearance" from the Justice Department.

But the board waited seven weeks before doing so, the suit argues. 

The state has already taken steps for the primary election that it should not have before final approval, said Landreth. It set a candidate filing deadline of June 1 that has now passed. About 150 candidates have filed, and the state's web page said it would certify candidates using the amended plan, the suit says.

It's against the law to take such steps "under a map that you don’t know whether or not is legally enforceable," Landreth said.

For one thing, that creates a problem for candidates trying to campaign because they can't be sure who their constituencies will be, she said.

The larger Native concerns over the plan that are not part of the lawsuit have been recently presented by Native corporate leaders in a meeting with Justice Department officials in Washington, 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 38 would be lumped with well-populated areas outside Fairbanks such as Ester that are predominantly non-Native communities. An analysis of past voting records showed that Native voters, who have long controlled that district, no longer would, she said.

Rural disadvantages

Part of the problem is that villages are at a disadvantage when it comes to voting, compared to urban areas. Many rural areas lack the early 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 and receiving documents can take days or weeks.    

Another key gripe for Native critics of the plan that also goes unmentioned in the suit: It creates two key rural districts in Southwest Alaska with hub cities that don't economically or culturally fit their new constituencies.  

For example, Dillingham in Bristol Bay would be lumped with much of the Kuskokwim region that's long been associated with Bethel, not the Bristol Bay and Aleutian coastal areas at its back door.

"I don't think they could have done a worse job if they'd worked harder at it," said Samuelson, referring to the redistricting board.

John Torgerson, redistricting board chairman, said in an emailed statement that the board "took its responsibility to the Alaska Native community very seriously."

The "insight" of board member Marie Greene, current chief executive of NANA, a Native regional corporation, was "particularly important as the board set out to draw a plan that would avoid (reducing Alaska Native districts) while representing the socio-economic interests of the Alaska Native community to the greatest extent possible."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com