Justice Department refuses to sanction state law barring census sampling

Posted: Sunday, July 09, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Justice Department has refused to approve provisions of state law barring use of sampling to adjust census figures when new legislative districts are drawn -- at least until detailed census figures are available.

The decision came in a letter Friday from Joseph Rich, acting chief of the department's voting section, to James L. Baldwin, an assistant attorney general for the state.

The Legislature approved measures in 1998 and 1999 mandating that the state use actual, rather than sampled, census figures in redistricting. The state asked the Justice Department in May to rule on whether those laws are in line with provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department gave a provisional no, deferred its ruling on the sampling issue until detailed census figures are in.

The Alaska case was being closely watched in political circles because Alaska is the first of several states seeking approval of redistricting plans that bar the use of ''sampling'' to alter census data.

Arizona submitted a plan earlier this year, but later withdrew it before federal officials could rule. Virginia is seeking court review of a similar law requiring the use of non-sampled data, hoping to bypass the Justice Department entirely.

For Alaska, ''right now, pre-existing law is the rule of the day -- which is that the board had complete discretion on whether to adjust census data,'' Baldwin, the Alaska assistant attorney general, said Friday.

The letter from Rich of the Justice Department says that ''we have concluded that until the Alaska block-level 2000 Census data are released, we cannot properly evaluate the effect of the proposed limitations in HJR (House Joint Resolution) 44 and SB (Senate Bill) 99 on the political participation opportunities of Alaska's minority voters in future legislative redistricting plans.''

When the census figures are out, Baldwin said, the state can resubmit its redistricting rules to the Justice Department.

But time will be short. Census figures come out on or about April 1 of next year, and the redistricting commission is required to have a working district map available 30 days later. The final plan has to be adopted within 90 days of the April 1 date, he said.

In the last round of redistricting, after the 1990 census, the anti-sampling provision wouldn't have made any difference, Baldwin said.

But there have been significant changes in the nonresident military population since then.

''With (the Navy base at) Adak gone and Fort Greely going, it places more of the military population in the Railbelt,'' Baldwin said.

The census counts people by their residence, not where they vote. So areas with high populations of servicemen and women who vote in other states can artificially inflate the voting power of their neighbors. Likewise, areas with many homeless people who aren't counted will have less political influence than their populations warrant.

In the last redistricting, Baldwin said, the anti-sampling provision wouldn't have made any difference.

For the upcoming census, the rural count is likely to be fairly accurate, Baldwin said, because the Census Bureau does an actual head count in the villages instead of relying on mail-in forms. It's in the more urban areas that the count is likely to come up short of the actual population.

Alaska is using a new system for its redistricting next year, after a 1998 amendment to the state constitution was narrowly approved by voters. A five-member panel will be appointed this fall to choose the new district lines. Governor Tony Knowles will appoint two members of the panel. Leaders of the House and Senate will each appoint one. And the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court will pick the fifth member.

Formerly, the governor picked the redistricting board.

The Justice Department said it had no objections to provisions of the new Alaska redistricting law aside from the sampling issue.

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