Petersburg voters will be part of a new legislative district for the August 28th state primary election. The statewide redistricting change was approved by only three of the five justices of Alaska’s Supreme Court last month. The plan was also given approval by the U.S. Department of Justice Wednesday.
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The re-drawing of legislative districts happens every ten years. The latest redistricting plan switches Petersburg from a House district with Sitka and Wrangell, to one that includes Juneau, Douglas, Skagway and Tenakee Springs.
The Alaska Redistricting Board’s executive director Taylor Bickford says the board received a letter Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Justice saying they would not object to the board’s amended plan. “Which basically means they have pre-cleared the plan and that they have given their stamp of approval to it for use in the 2012 elections,” Bickford says. “So for us that’s really the final hurdle. The state supreme court had approved the plan for the upcoming elections and now that the justice department has also approved the plan, there aren’t any roadblocks that lie ahead for the plan and it means that the election will be able to move forward without any interruption.”
Pre-clearance is required under federal law for Alaska and several other states to ensure new voting plans do not discriminate against minorities. Petersburg challenged the redistricting plan in court unsuccessfully. Petersburg officials argued that the small fishing town had little in common with Juneau and preferred to be in a district with Sitka and smaller Southeast communities.
In a May 22 order, the Alaska Supreme Court decided to go with the plan that keeps Petersburg in a district with Juneau. That order said while a different configuration for Southeast Alaska complied with the requirements of state’s constitution, it noted a risk that the federal government would not pre-clear that configuration and said that could be a great disruption to the state’s election process.
Two of the Justices disagreed with that decision. In a dissenting opinion issued this month, Justices Daniel Winfree and Craig Stowers wrote that the Alaska constitution comes first and deference to pre-clearance under the federal law is not necessary.
Late last month Petersburg petitioned the court for a rehearing, asking the court to reconsider the district lines for Southeast. However, the court denied that petition.
The redistricting board’s Bickford says its not yet clear whether the new plan will be in place beyond 2012 – that will be up to the state Supreme Court. “The implication has been eventually they’ll issue a ruling on whether or not it can be used as a final plan,” he says. “So I think at this point, it’s conceivable that they will do that, its also possible they’ll ask for changes for the permanent plan.If the court approves this plan as drawn for the full 10 years, then its not going to have to go back to Justice.”
State elections officials have been getting ready for the 2012 elections under the new legislative districts, with the first election about two months away. Gail Fenumiai is director of the state’s division of elections. “Well that’s why the division has been moving forward in preparing for the August 28th primary in order to meet that deadline,” Fenumiai says. “There are state stuatory deadlines and federal deadlines that need to be complied with and we’re doing everything in our power to ensure we’re still able to do that,” she adds.
The division of elections has posted voter information on its website, including political party breakdown of the new districts. That breakdown shows over 14-thousand registered voters for the new house district 32. That’s larger than Petersburg’s old House District 2, by more than 3,000 voters. With 2,602 registered voters, the Petersburg Kupreanof precinct is the largest among the 10 precincts in the new district. Undeclared voters overall are still the largest voting block in district 32, like they were in Petersburg’s old district. However, among political parties, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the new district. The opposite was the case in the old House District 2.
The division of election’s Fenumiai says the state will be coming out with other information for primary election over the next two months. “Voters will be receiving a new voter identification card with their new district and number precinct on it as well as information as to where their polling place location,” she says. “And we will have all the new polling place locations listed on our website as soon as we have them all finalized.”
Sunday July 29th is the deadline to register to vote or to make any changes to voter registration, which impacts which ballot voters can choose in the upcoming primary. There’s a deadline of July 11th for candidates to withdrawal their names from the primary ballot. The division plans to make sample ballots available after that date. There’s more information on the Division of Elections website.