Murkowski joins Democrats in effort to broaden support for voting rights measure

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and three Senate Democrats on Tuesday introduced amendments to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, creating a bipartisan effort to broaden support for the measure after Republicans have opposed it.

The move came a day before the Senate is scheduled to hold a vote to allow debate on the measure.

Murkowski released the proposed amendments with Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, according to a statement from Leahy’s office.

The act is part of a Democrat-led effort to once again update the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has been renewed several times since its original passage.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 nullified the federal oversight provision in the act and said it was up to Congress to come up with a new formula, using contemporary data, to identify states that are subject to federal monitoring.

Previously, the Department of Justice had regulated elections in states such as Alaska with a past history of ballot box discrimination against minorities.

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Alaska was regulated due to English language tests once used to impact Alaska Native voting eligibility. As Congress altered the original law over time, other factors also led to federal oversight in Alaska, such as providing ballots only in English even in Native villages with limited English proficiency.

Democrats in Congress are prioritizing voting rights measures as Republican-controlled state legislatures pass laws restricting elections, following debunked claims of election fraud raised by former President Donald Trump.

The House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in August, moving it to the Senate. The vote split along party lines, with 219 Democrats in favor and 212 Republicans, including Alaska Rep. Don Young, opposed.

Republicans have opposed efforts to update the 1965 law, saying the federal government should avoid interfering in state elections, according to news accounts.

Murkowski said in the statement issued by Leahy’s office on Tuesday that the new amendments are a starting point for bipartisan consensus. The proposal incorporates the Native American Voting Rights Act and is designed to address longstanding obstacles that American Indians and Alaska Natives face in the voting process, Murkowski’s statement said.

“Voting rights are fundamental to our democracy and how we protect them defines us as a nation,” she said. “I have supported this particular legislation in previous Congresses and continued to work with my colleagues on it, because it provides a framework through which legitimate voting rights issues can be tackled.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was unavailable for immediate comment on the measure, a spokesman in his office said Tuesday.

The Native American Rights Fund, which has represented Alaska Native people in voting rights disputes with the state of Alaska, praised the proposed changes in a statement. They will help ensure that Native Americans have equal access to voting resources, the group said.

“Importantly, this bi-partisan voting rights legislation includes provisions that address the unique barriers that are being erected to disenfranchise Native voters,” said Jacqueline De León, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

In October, Murkowski joined other Senate Republicans in opposing a procedural vote on the Freedom to Vote Act, a separate Democrat-led measure to reform elections. Murkowski said the measure needed bipartisan support and would have caused “micromanaging or federalizing” of state election activities.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.