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Rhetoric ratchets up in Voting Rights Act political debate

Pat Forgey
Sen. Mark Begich defends special protections afforded to Alaska Natives under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Alaska and several Southern states with a history of suppressing or diminishing the minority vote must get Justice Department "preclearance" before making any changes in how or where Alaskans vote. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- Remarks by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in defense of the Voting Rights Act and its special protections for Alaska Natives have come under fire from some in state government, but the first-term Democrat is standing behind them and even gaining some other defenders. 

Speaking in Juneau earlier this week, Begich criticized a bill in the Alaska Legislature that would require photo identification for voters, as well as the Parnell administration's court attempts to overturn the civil rights legislation, which gives special protections to Natives and special authority over state elections to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said Begich misrepresented what his House Bill 3 would do.  “Contrary to his assertion before our Legislature, nothing in HB 3 erects any barriers to any voter," Lynn said. That's because requiring photo identification is not a barrier, he said.

Begich maintained it is, citing some of his own staff members with elderly relatives lacking photo IDs who had for years voted and participated in their villages. They'd be barred from voting without the photo IDs, he said. 

Gail Fenumiai, director of the state Elections Division, challenged Begich in a letter following his appearance and defended her division's efforts to assist voters with language programs that provide ballots and voter information in Alaska Native languages as well as Tagalog and Spanish.

"The state has never printed translated ballots in historically unwritten Alaska Native languages, and has never been required to do so. Therefore, your statement that the state has 'attempted to stop printing' such ballots is misinformed," Fenumiai wrote. 

Begich Press Secretary Heather Handyside said Friday that the Voting Rights Act has protected Alaska Natives from barriers to voting created by their language and where they live.

"It's sadly ironic the Division of Elections rests its defense on that act because this administration is in federal court today seeking to gut that very law," she said. 

Fenumiai's letter also outlined the effort the state went through to ensure access to voting -- including bilingual poll workers, translators, and other help to voters with limited English proficiency. 

"I strongly dispute your assertions that the division makes it more difficult to vote here or that the state has imposed any obstacles to voting," she wrote.

"Senator Begich’s remarks to the state Legislature earlier this week about voting challenges faced by Alaska Natives and other minority groups were accurate and reflect the troubling experiences he’s been hearing from many rural Alaskans," Handyside responded.

The Alaska Democratic Party Friday accused Fenumiai of playing a political role on behalf of Gov. Sean Parnell and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who have challenged the Voting Rights Act and its application to Alaska.

"It is highly inappropriate for the Division of Elections director, a nonpartisan state employee, to engage in partisan politics on behalf of Sean Parnell and Mead Treadwell," said Mike Wenstrup, chair of the Alaska Democratic Party. The state, he added, has attempted to close polling places in predominately Native villages and limited early voting as well. 

"The Parnell-Treadwell administration has consistently made it more difficult for Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans to vote in our elections," Wenstrup said. 

That's not the state's intent with its court challenges, Fenumiai said.

"The state is not in any way attempting to decrease the assistance we provide to Alaskan voters who require language assistance,” she wrote. "The state seeks only to be able to administer, implement, and improve our state’s voting laws without unwarranted interference from the federal government." 

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com