Alaska sues to avoid federal oversight of elections

Reuters News

8/22/2012 12:01:30 AM - Reuters News

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska on Tuesday sued to overturn federal oversight of state elections, saying that Voting Rights Act provisions aimed at protecting African Americans in southern states are not applicable in the far north.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn provisions of the landmark civil rights legislation entirely, or at least stop them from being enforced in Alaska. Alaska was grouped with southern states under the Voting Rights Act in 1972 because it offered only English-language ballots at the time.

Subjecting the state to extra scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act made it more difficult this year for the state to redraw legislative districts, said the lawsuit, filed against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The Voting Rights Act section that requires federal "preclearance" of changes to Alaska elections laws and procedures "is onerous and time consuming, creates uncertainty and delay, and places Alaska's elections at the mercy of Department of Justice attorneys in Washington, D.C.," the lawsuit argued.

Unlike the situation that may exist in other states, "Congress had almost no evidence of discriminatory voting practices in Alaska," the lawsuit said. "No evidence before Congress indicated that Alaska should be counted among those jurisdictions where voting discrimination has been most flagrant. Indeed, no such evidence exists."

Native voting rates are about equal to rates for non-Native voters, and Alaska Natives have been elected to legislative offices since the period before statehood, the lawsuit said.

Alaska should never have been grouped with southern states for Voting Rights Act purposes, the state contends in its lawsuit. That determination was made in 1972 and based on the fact that Alaska offered only English-language ballots at the time, according to the lawsuit.

But Alaska Native languages were historically unwritten, so the premise that English-only ballots are evidence of discrimination against Natives is flawed, the lawsuit contends.

Alaska has the highest percentage of indigenous residents of all U.S. states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2010 census revealed that about 15 percent of state residents are Alaska Native or American Indian, but that figure rises to 19.5 percent when multiple races are considered, according to the Census Bureau.

Earlier this year, the Native American Rights Fund sought to block Alaska's plan to redraw legislative districts, claiming it was unfair to Native-dominated rural areas. The redistricting plan ultimately won federal and Alaska state Supreme Court approval.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Law and the Native American Rights Fund were not immediately available on Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)