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Alaska Supreme Court: Redraw Southeast districts for 2012 elections

Eric Christopher Adams

The decennial process of redrawing Alaska's electoral districts is almost done. But not quite.

The Alaska Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that will effectively give Alaskans a map for where they'll vote will be counted in this fall's elections, when 59 of 60 state legislative seats will be up for grabs. The ruling comes six months before the general election, one surely to be hotly contested as incumbents and challengers define themselves, especially over whether to reduce taxes on the oil industry -- the lifeblood of Alaska.

A few kinks still need to be worked out in the redistricting, particularly in the state's Southeast panhandle. The Supreme Court's ruling gives the Alaska Redistricting Board until May 15 to redraw four House districts that together compose two Senate districts so they conform to state constitutional standards.

What's not yet known is whether this map will be valid beyond 2012.

The Redistricting Board has been trying to get this map drawn for years. Two maps have been drafted and one revised in order to conform to both state and federal laws. Alaska is one of nine states across the U.S. that must submit voting maps to the federal government for approval. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 identifies these states as among those "where the potential for (racial or minority) discrimination is the greatest."

Approval by the U.S. Justice Department, a process called "preclearance," ensures that minorities with some history or possibility of disenfranchisement -- Alaska Natives in this instance -- are not harmed by the redistricting process.

The Alaska Redistricting Board's first attempt was approved by the federal government, only to have state courts invalidate it. A lawsuit by the Southeast city of Petersburg has kept a map from being certified by state courts.

Thursday's ruling ordered the board to reformulate Southeast districts with an eye on state constitutional principles instead of Voting Rights Act requirements. Taylor Bickford, executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board, said Thursday that previous iterations of the map were drawn with both state and federal laws in mind.

State law requires voting districts to be as continuous and compact as possible. Districts also should take into consideration local government (city and borough) boundaries and "socioeconomic integration." That's to make sure, among other things, that politicians don't redraw districts to dilute the voting strength of a region or specific community.

Bickford said he did not know what the redrawn Southeast districts would look like, but that the board was under the gun to work fast.

The Alaska Division of Elections has indicated it needs redistricting maps to be finalized by next week, he said, in order to prepare for this fall's statewide and federal elections. The candidate filing deadline is June 1 and state election primaries are in August.

"What the court ruled on is that we need a plan (for fall elections) immediately and that this is the plan. We'll make amendments for Southeast and we'll get it back by Tuesday," Bickford told Alaska Dispatch. "The court said it isn't yet ready to approve the plan for a full 10 years but for 2012, we're going to use it."

Once the revisions are made and the court is satisfied with the composition of future House Districts 31-34 and future Senate districts P and Q, it will revisit other issues with the map, Bickford said.

"This is the first step of the review. Next the court will decide whether we did or did not follow" state constitutional requirements for redrawing voting districts, Bickford said, adding, "we're confident the court will agree that we did."

The map still hasn't received "preclearance," or federal approval. The Justice Department will review the map that's revised and then has up to 60 days to approve or deny it.

"The Native districts in the plan are the same as they were" in the plan the feds approved last year, Bickford said. "There are a lot of plans, a lot of moving parts to redistricting. The Supreme Court's order clarifies the situation -- at least for 2012."

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com