The sparring over whether U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was correct in his assertions last week that the Parnell administration and some legislators seek to suppress Native voting may foreshadow a larger battle in the 2014 election.
That conflict would follow a story line of the 2012 presidential election: Did some Republican-governed states attempt to place roadblocks in front of traditional Democratic voters, such as the elderly and minorities, to tip the field in favor of Mitt Romney? That question ended up in several courts before the November election and was seized as an issue by President Barack Obama's supporters.
And now the issue appears to be coming to Alaska.
In his annual address to the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, Begich said he and other Alaskans were concerned "about recent trends in our state making voting more difficult," especially for Alaska Natives and the growing Hispanic communities. He criticized the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell for trying to get a section of the U.S. Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional, as well as legislators who are backing a bill to impose new identification requirements for voters, such as a photo ID.
Begich's speech was soon followed by a statement from the author of the voter ID bill, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, that he was "shocked" that Begich could conclude his measure would make it harder to vote for rural residents, whom the state even allows to drive without picture identification.
Two days later, Alaska Elections Director Gail Fenumiai asked Begich to correct "two misconceptions" in his talk and denied that the state's two-prong legal attack on the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act was an assault on minority voters.
"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," Fenumiai wrote in a letter to Begich released by her staff.
Begich answered that he "stands firm" on the points in his speech and that rural Alaska Natives had come to depend on the Voting Rights Act "to protect themselves from barriers at the ballot box."
An Alaska Democratic Party official followed up with examples backing Begich, citing attempts by the Elections Division to shut down village polling places and to fail to provide assistance to speakers of Yup'ik and other Native languages until ordered by a federal judge in Anchorage. That case, before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, a George W. Bush appointee, only concluded in 2012.
"This is really an issue of national importance," said the official, Zack Fields, communications director for the state Democratic Party. When voting is less restrictive, he said, Democrats do better.
Republicans say that when voter identification rules are lax, ballot fraud becomes a problem.
JUSTICE DEPT. OVERSIGHT
The 2014 election holds big stakes in Alaska. Begich, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state, is up for re-election, a race that could determine whether Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate. While centrist Democrats like Begich have shown they can win a statewide election here, the contests are usually close.
Republican Gov. Parnell is also standing for re-election -- unless he chooses to run against Begich. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state's top election official, has already announced that he is exploring a run against Begich.
The Alaska Redistricting Board, which remade the legislative map for the 2012 election, is under orders by the Alaska Supreme Court to redraw at least some districts by 2014. Under the 2012 map, Democrats ended up with small minorities in both houses of the Legislature, and two Native legislators and the sole African-American legislator were replaced by whites.
Most of the issues related to Native voting -- the village poll closings, voter identification, preserving legislative districts where enough voters are Native that they would have strong influence on the outcome, election material made available in indigenous languages -- are tied to protections under the Voting Rights Act. Alaska is one of nine states -- most are in the South -- that are subject to Justice Department supervision under Section 5 of the act. That means that any change to voting procedures must be cleared by the Justice Department before it can be implemented.
Native American Rights Fund Attorney Natalie Landreth, a specialist in the Voting Rights Act in Anchorage, cited the example of the small Prince William Sound village of Tatitlek, where in 2008 the Division of Elections proposed to shift its polling place 33 miles away to Cordova. No road connects the two communities.
Fenumiai, the election official, said the division proposed the Tatitlek consolidation and others were proposed because of the difficulty in finding poll workers.
"Every election cycle we struggle to find poll workers in those communities, even reaching out to the tribal council offices for names and not getting any success there," she said. The division alerted the Justice Department to the change, and said it would accommodate the villagers with absentee ballots.
The Justice Department responded with a "MIR" letter -- more information requested.
"It would've taken the division a very long time to answer that and we were butting up against the election, so we just made the choice to withdraw the request," Fenumiai said.
To Landreth, that was one of many examples of how Section 5 helped villagers, assuring them of the same fundamental voting rights held by urban residents. To the state, it was an example of federal interference.
The Parnell administration is fighting the Voting Rights Act on two fronts. It has joined a challenge to Section 5's constitutionality brought by Shelby County, Ala., next door to Birmingham, where the infamous Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor loosed police dogs and fire hoses on unarmed demonstrators in the 1960s -- a direct cause of the civil rights legislation that followed. And it filed its own lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking an order removing the state from Section 5 oversight.
"Section 5's preclearance requirement is onerous and time-consuming, creates uncertainty and delay, and places Alaska's elections at the mercy of Department of Justice attorneys in Washington, D.C.," the state said in its complaint. "Alaska cannot make the smallest change to its election procedures, even those that do not affect minority voting, without prior permission of the Department of Justice."
The Voting Rights Act would likely prevent Rep. Lynn's voter ID bill from ever becoming law in Alaska, as long as Section 5 remains intact, Landreth said.
Before the current legislative session began, Lynn, the chair of the House State Affairs Committee, had vowed to hear the bill as one of his committee's first orders of business. Nearly two-thirds through the session now, that hasn't happened. The Supreme Court will decide the Shelby challenge by the end of its term in June, so the legislature will know whether Section 5 still exists in its 2014 session, in time to pass the bill before the election.
Lynn's bill would require a photo ID to vote -- the first time Alaska has had such a requirement. The bill says a voter could also use two pieces of non-photographic evidence, such as an original or certified birth certificate or a government license. That replaces the current identification requirement, which allows for a single form of identification that could include a bank statement, utility bill or government or payroll check showing the name and address of the voter.
In his speech to the Legislature, Begich said that requirement would disenfranchise elderly village voters, including the grandparents of two of his staff members. They've never gotten an ID, he said. "I'm going to tell you right now, they're not getting one. But they vote, and they participate in their villages."
Begich also accused the Parnell administration of opposing Native language ballots.
Fenumiai responded that the division currently provides assistance to speakers of several Native languages as well as Tagalog for voters from the Philippines living in Kodiak, and Spanish.
But the division and the city of Bethel were sued by the Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union for failing to provide language assistance in the Bethel region. The Elections Division lost that case, first under a temporary restraining order issued by Judge Burgess in 2008, and then the final order in 2010.
Until the lawsuit, Fenumiai said, "The division never realized or was told that there were any problems or issues with the language assistance that was being offered."
Landreth said there are still language access problems in rural Alaska that have yet to be resolved. \
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER