Michael Carey: Ignorance, not racism, led to Alaska's status in Voting Rights Act

The recent Supreme Court decision overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has many Alaskans, especially in the Natives community, worried. The Justice Department will no longer will approve changes in election law and legislative reapportionment plans through a process known as "pre-clearance." Those who object to amended state election laws or reapportionment proposals will have to turn to federal court.

Alaskans have been living under the Voting Rights Act since 1975, usually oblivious to the obvious question "Why did Congress apply the Voting Rights Act to Alaska?"

In 1965, Congress, under pressure from the Johnson administration, civil rights leaders, and the conscience of a nation, passed the original VRA by a large margin. The bill was designed to sweep away impediments to voting - and seeking public office - in states that historically prevented blacks from participating in the political process, especially in the deep south.

When the bill came up for renewal in 1975, northern liberals such as Sen. Jacob Javitz of New York, a Republican, again argued the measure righted historical wrongs, and southern conservatives like Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi, a Democrat, denounced federal interference in state affairs.

But the VRA renewal was not written solely for Dixie. The seven-year extension called for the attorney general to remove language barriers inhibiting minorities in election districts across the country. Alaska definitely was in the minds of some lawmakers who crafted the bill. The New York Times specifically mentioned a Senate discussion of bilingual ballots for "Eskimo citizens," and in the House, Rep. Robert McClory, an Illinois Republican, objected to the cost of remedial measures directed at "Eskimos and Indians."

Attorney General Edward Levi, using census and election data, found Alaska failing those who spoke Native languages - and placed the state under VRA. Some 513 towns, cities and counties in all or parts of 30 states were told they must conduct elections in Spanish and other languages as well as English.

It's true, Alaska was doing little or nothing to aid voters who spoke no English. Alaska is a sprawling state -- then covering four time zones -- and communication was poorer than today. Some villages did not have telephones. When election officials sent election material to villages, they could not be certain what would follow. One village held a primary election on a Monday, not the Tuesday prescribed by law, as a matter of convenience to voters preparing to go fishing.

Alaska's leaders were not guilty of southern-style racism. They suffered a lack of imagination and failed to understand the importance of election material tailored for Native voters. The day VRA passed the House -- July 28, 1975 -- the Anchorage Times, Alaska's largest newspaper, ran a short Associated Press story under a headline that yawned "Voting Bill Is Okayed By House." The Times was more interested in the route the natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48 -- coming soon -- would follow.

When the VRA extension was applied to Alaska, Natives were an essential bloc of the Democratic Party, which had controlled the machinery of government most of the time from statehood until 1975. Bill Egan had been governor for three terms; Democrats had led the Legislature more than half the sessions. Democrats wanted Alaska Natives to vote. Egan was confident the Native vote was his and would have been happy if every Alaska Native voted. More than once, a Democratic candidate for statewide office went to bed election night trailing but woke up a winner after the Bush reported.

Red Boucher, Egan's lieutenant governor from 1970-1974, led an energetic voter-registration initiative - but that was not enough to satisfy the federal government (or to win Egan and Boucher re-election in 1974).

If the authors of VRA renewal learned any of this, their education did not influence their behavior. Apparently they also were unimpressed by the 1973 special election to fill the Congressional seat left vacant when Nick Begich disappeared in 1972. Both the 1973 candidates were from rural Alaska. One was Native -- and in 1974, the Democratic candidate for Congress was also Native. In the early Seventies, a minority was unusual on a statewide ballot anywhere in the United States.

The authors of the 1975 Voting Rights Act extension were concerned about election districts containing non-English speakers in which the turnout fell below 50 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, nine of Alaska's 40 House districts had a turnout less than 50 percent. Four were in Anchorage, two in Fairbanks, and three in Bush Alaska. Why so many voters in these districts failed to vote is a matter of speculation, but given the influence of VRA on state election practices, a language barrier is not the explanation.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com