With representation on decline, voting rights decision worries Native districts

Most states that had been covered under the Voting Rights Act won’t feel the full impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling until 2020, when the next redistricting cycle starts up. But Alaska, along with Texas, will experience the effects straight away. Here, political lines still haven’t been finalized, and today’s decision could shape the way boundaries are drawn.

Under federal law, Alaska was required to have five House and three Senate districts with large Native populations. The point was to guarantee Alaska Natives a voice in the legislature. With the Supreme Court striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, that requirement is gone.

“What we fear is that it’s going to be a net loss,” says Alice Ruby.

Ruby is the mayor of Dillingham, where Alaska Natives make up over half the population. She says that even with the Voting Rights Act’s requirements, communities like hers have seen their power diluted in recent years. As the population of cities along the Railbelt has gone up, rural Alaska has seen its representation shrink. The number of Alaska Natives in office has also dropped, going from seven to five in the last election cycle.

“I don’t know if you define that as discrimination, but I do know that it has affected certainly my community because we ended up being part of a district that was split in an odd way or that the district was so large that our legislator really couldn’t adequately represent us,” says Ruby.

Ruby is nervous that things may get worse for her region. As a city official, she says the Supreme Court’s ruling that all Alaska voting policies — whether they involve state or local elections — go through the Department of Justice before they get cleared relieves some regulatory burdens on a municipality like hers. But she says that wasn’t much of an inconvenience, and that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act largely benefitted her region. With the Alaska Redistricting Board currently reviewing nearly a dozen political maps, she’s worried that communities off the road system won’t be adequately represented.

“So, why wouldn’t we be afraid? The maps have been released and hearings have been scheduled in the large urban areas, and here we are, still wondering what the impact will be on us.”

Bob Brodie is a member of the redistricting board, and he says he understands those concerns.

“I think in the future it’s going to be very difficult for rural areas to perhaps be represented,” say Brodie.

A number of the plans being reviewed by the board have a lot in common with the current map, which was drawn to meet Department of Justice standards. Michael White, the board’s attorney, says that they’re still keeping Native influence in mind. But when it comes to a decline in population, there’s not much the board can do.

Brodie says this isn’t just an Alaska problem.

“I don’t know so much if we could label it a Native thing, but it’s certainly a rural thing that’s common across the country.”

In addition to affecting redistricting, the Supreme Court’s ruling could also have implications for future voting laws. A controversial bill that would require voters to display photo ID at polling places was introduced in the legislature earlier this year, and had it passed this session, the Department of Justice would have had to okay it before it would go into effect. Should the bill move forward next session, it would no longer have to go through that review process.

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