Natives ask Justice Department to overturn resdistricting law

Posted: Monday, February 12, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Thirteen Alaska Native groups have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to order the Alaska's Redistricting Board to ignore non-resident military personnel when drawing new election district boundaries. The groups say counting such personnel would be unfair and would illegally reduce Native voting power.

The Native groups, including Doyon Ltd., appealed to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division last June. They asked the department to reject a 1998 state law that forces the Redistricting Board to count ''non-resident'' military personnel, who can't vote in Alaska.

The Justice Department put off a decision in July, but the dispute could arise again when the redistricting process goes into full swing later this year.

The Native groups said the law could take the equivalent of a full state legislative district away from Native-majority areas.

''We believe it creates and was intended to create districts that don't represent rural Alaska, and in particular our shareholders,'' Allen Todd, Doyon's general counsel, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The redistricting board is supposed to complete its work within 90 days of receiving the 2000 census data, due April 1. Under the 1998 state law, it cannot use surveys to estimate, and thereby potentially exclude, the non-resident military population in Alaska. They must be counted.

However, if the Justice Department finds that counting non-resident military people significantly dilutes the voting power of Native people, it could reject the redistricting plan.

Disputes over the counting of Alaska's military population have a long history, according to the Native groups' attorneys, Myra Munson of Juneau and Donald Simon of Washington.

In their appeal letter, the attorneys said the Alaska Constitution initially allowed redistricting boards to count only civilians. However, the Alaska Supreme Court, in a 1972 dispute between former Govs. Bill Egan and Jay Hammond, decided the state rule was trumped by the U.S. Constitution. The court said the state could exclude only military personnel who were not registered voters.

So the state, in 1973 and again in 1980, excluded non-resident military people, based on estimates, Munson and Simon said. But in 1990, the military didn't cooperate with a survey and the state dropped the exclusion effort, they said.

Then in 1998, the Legislature passed a law that said ''the redistricting board may not adjust the census numbers by using estimates, population surveys, or sampling for the purpose of excluding or discriminating among persons counted based on race, religion, color, national origin, sex, age, occupation, military or civilian status, or length of residency.''

That's where the state went afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Native groups argue. First, the decision to count all military personnel pumps up the primarily white urban districts more than primarily Native rural districts.

In 1998, about 18,900 non-resident military personnel lived in urban areas, compared to about 2,000 in rural areas, according to a study by Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Second, in the past decade, the military population in rural Alaska declined by 99 percent while the urban military population declined by only 16 percent, Lichtman found.

Under federal law, such reduction of minority voting influence is illegal, said Todd, general counsel for Doyon.

Besides, non-voting military personnel shouldn't be counted as a matter of fairness, he said. Counting them means a larger number of actual voters is needed to create a district in areas of relatively low military population, he said. In Alaska, those areas are mostly Native.

Jim Baldwin, an assistant attorney general in Juneau, defended the state's law in a letter to the Justice Department last year. Until the new census data are released, he said, it would be ''very difficult'' for the state to prove the impact of the law on Native voters.

The Justice Department said it would have a similar problem.

''Until the Alaska block-level 2000 Census data are released, we cannot properly evaluate the effect of the proposed limitations ... on the political participation opportunities of Alaska's minority voters in future legislative redistricting plans,'' wrote Joseph Rich, acting chief of the Voting Section.

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