Justice approves redistricting plan over Aleut objection

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Justice approved Alaska's 2001 Redistricting plan this week, finding that it doesn't dilute the overall political clout of Natives.

With the Justice Department's pre-clearance of the plan, it now takes effect in Alaska while a lawsuit challenging it proceeds.

''Alaska's plans have not been pre-cleared previously. It's an important step,'' said Philip Volland, attorney for the Alaska Redistricting Board.

The Justice Department ruled on Monday the plan complies with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by preserving the political representation of Alaska Natives.

Alaska is one of nine states with a history of voter discrimination which require Justice Department approval for changes in their electoral practices.

Other states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Alaska's 2001 redistricting plan maintains four house districts and two Senate districts with a majority Native population. It also preserves two House districts and one Senate district with at least 35 percent Native population.

But the plan drew objection from The Aleut Corporation, which represents Aleuts in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian, Shumagin and Pribilof Islands.

The corporation appealed to the Justice Department to stop the plan, which they said would dilute their political power.

The 2001 Redistricting plan mixes Aleut commercial fishermen in a new Senate district with Yupik subsistence communities along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Aleuts and Yupiks are often at odds over fishing issues and have no historical or economic ties to each other, said Roger DuBrock, attorney for The Aleut Corp.

''Under the plan they would be lumped in the same district and outvoted,'' DuBrock said.

For years, the Yupik subsistence users maintained Aleut and Alutiiq commercial fishermen intercept salmon bound for rivers to the north.

Yupiks have fought for efforts to restrict commercial fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.

The Aleut Corp. favors returning to a pre-1994 district which included Natives in the Aleutian chain with Kodiak, which shares similar economies and cultural and historical ties.

Koniag Inc., a Native corporation representing the Kodiak area, raised similar objections before the Redistricting Board.

The Kodiak area had been in a Senate district that hopscotches across the Gulf of Alaska to Southeast Alaska under the 1994 map. Under the 2001 map, Kodiak is included with the Kenai Peninsula.

Koniag President Dennis Metrokin argued the new district ''appears to have been driven solely by an effort to equalized population between the districts.''

The closure of the U.S. Naval Base at Adak caused the Aleutian Island population to drop by 28 percent, the redistricting board said. That legislative district had to be incorporated with an adjacent populated area to approach the ideal size of 15,673 people in each House district.

The Aleutians East Borough is part of a lawsuit challenging the 2001 Redistricting plan in Superior Court.

The lawsuit also includes GOP leaders who argue the plan would pit at least 20 incumbents Republicans against each other. The Legislative Council, which represents the GOP-controlled Legislature, has asked an Anchorage Superior judge to be allowed to join the lawsuit.

The Alaska Redistricting Board approved the 2001 map in June by a 3-2 vote. Board members Michael Lessmeir and Bert Sharp, who were appointed by Republican legislative leaders, called the plan blatantly partisan.

Two other board members appointed by Gov. Tony Knowles and one by Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe, herself a Knowles appointment, voted in favor of the plan.

Ken Jacobus, a Republican attorney involved in the lawsuit, said the Justice Department pre-clearance will have little bearing on the legal fight.

''The Justice Department looks at it in a very limited way,'' Jacobus said. ''If they would have rejected the map, it would have been very significant.''

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