Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alaska wants the federal government to stop intervening in its elections.
This month, the state sued to end federal oversight, essentially arguing that it shouldn’t be included in the Voting Rights Act because it’s not a Southern state.
In 1975, Alaska was grouped with eight Southern states under the Voting Rights Act because it failed to provide voting materials in languages beside English, despite having a significant population of Native Alaskans who spoke 20 different languages. As a result, like many Southern states, Alaska today must get approval from the federal government to make virtually any changes to the way it conducts elections.
Over the last 30 years, the state’s elections division says it’s had to get nearly 500 federal “preclearances” for approval of major and minor changes to voting rules. This year, a protracted legal battle over its latest round of redistricting resulted in a bizarre situation in which the federal government approved the state’s maps just days before a deadline to mail out absentee ballots. Alaska Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh says if the feds had waited much longer to approve redistricting this year, the state might have had to delay its primary elections and hold them separately from federal elections. She says the lawsuit was filed to help prevent a similar situation in 2014.
What makes Alaska unique, Paton-Walsh says, is that the state never should have been included in the law in the first place. "Congress had almost no evidence of discriminatory voting practices in Alaska," the lawsuit says. State officials argue that in the 1970s, it didn’t make sense to provide written voting materials because historically Native Alaskan languages had only been spoken. Their written texts were developed recently, and there would have been few Native Alaskans familiar with their own written languages but not English, she says.
According to Census data, about 10,000 Native Alaskans or Native Americans living in the state speak English “less than very well.” It’s unclear, however, exactly how many of those people would benefit from written voter information in Native Alaskan languages. Anna Berge, an associate professor at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, say it’s probably true that there are few people who are familiar with written Native Alaskan languages but not written English. But she says the discussion should be broader since vast cultural differences mean a Native Alaskan still might not understand the voting process even with knowledge of written English.
The Native American Rights Fund said in 2006 that “many Alaska Natives find the English-only ballot language confusing.” And they said that Alaska didn’t even repeal an English literacy requirement to vote until 1970. (Today, the state provides oral and written language assistance to voters who speak native languages.)
A handful of conservative states have challenged the Voting Rights Act this year, and there’s widespread speculation that a lawsuit by Shelby County, Ala., will reach the Supreme Court soon. The county is arguing that the criteria used to determine which jurisdictions fall under the law is outdated. That case could have widespread implications for Alaska and others if it results in a new interpretation of parts of the law.
The declaratory judgment in State of Alaska v. Eric H. Holder appears below.
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