Politics

Alaska senators oppose voting rights bill, signal support for narrower move

Sullivan Murkowski Mashup composite

Alaska’s two U.S. senators voted Wednesday against sweeping voting rights legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders said would strengthen access to voting and make elections more fair across the country.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who had previously signaled support for some voting rights measures, said Wednesday she would vote against the legislation because, among other reasons, it had failed to garner bipartisan support.

Murkowski and fellow Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan joined all Republicans in the Senate in voting against the legislation, which had the support of all 50 Democrats – not enough to reach the 60-vote threshold for the legislation to pass.

Democrats argued during day-long debate that Republican-led states are passing laws making it more difficult for people of color and others to vote.

The legislation considered Wednesday included provisions from both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

Murkowski was the only Republican who voted in November to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, after working to reach a bipartisan compromise on the bill with Democrats in the Senate.

That bill is comparatively more narrow — designed to address a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that made it harder for the federal government to block racially discriminatory voting laws and redistricting proposals.

The bill also incorporated the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would allow tribes to specify the number and locations of requested voter registration sites, drop boxes and polling locations, among other measures.

Murkowski voted against the broader Freedom to Vote Act in October, saying that it would move toward “micromanaging or federalizing state elections systems.”

That bill included several provisions, including establishing national rules for running elections, limiting partisanship in the drawing of congressional districts and forcing the disclosure of anonymous donors who can influence elections by spending large sums on campaigns. The legislation would also have made Election Day a national holiday and ensured access to early voting and mail-in ballots.

“We have devolved into a debate over voting rights versus voting rules. And you got part of the country that thinks this bill is about protecting the right to vote. Another part believes that this bill will do nothing but undermine it,” Murkowski said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Both sides are now set to cast doubt on elections if they don’t win.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan has uniformly voted against both voting rights bills.

“A federal power grab in terms of elections is not what’s needed,” Sullivan told the Anchorage Daily News on Wednesday. “The federal government’s role is not to tell every single state how to do their voting rights.”

In a speech on the senate floor earlier this month, Sullivan cited Alaska’s early in-person voting, automatic voter registration and absentee voting laws as proof that voting laws in Republican-controlled Alaska are “significantly more expansive” than those in some Democrat-controlled states, including New York, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“I am not trying to say that every other state should be like Alaska,” Sullivan said on the Senate floor. “The point is, we are not all going to be the same.”

The three provisions Sullivan mentioned in Alaska’s voting laws exist in many other states — both Democrat- and Republican-controlled — but are missing from others.

Alaska law allows for 15 days of early in-person voting. The state is one of 44 and Washington D.C., to offer early in-person voting, with the average number of early in-person voting days clocking in at 23, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Sullivan also referenced Alaska’s no-excuse absentee voting option, available in 26 states and Washington D.C., in addition to eight states that conduct elections entirely by mail. Automatic voter registration, available in Alaska through the Permanent Fund dividend sign-up, is available in 22 states and Washington, D.C., through other mechanisms.

When asked if he would support narrower voting rights legislation, Sullivan touted states’ decentralized voting laws as an asset against interference from foreign governments in U.S. elections.

“By having 50 different systems, it actually makes it much harder for a foreign government to come in and disrupt American democracy and voting,” Sullivan said.

Both Sullivan and Murkowski said they would be open to a narrower overhaul of a specific provision in federal election law — the Electoral Count Act, legislation dating back to 1887 that was used by former President Donald Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election results.

The act is “poorly crafted” and “vague,” Sullivan said. “And poorly crafted and vague laws can cause mischief.”

“We do not need a repeat of 2020, when, by all accounts, our past president, having lost the election, sought to change the results of that election,” Murkowski said.

A move Wednesday to establish an exception to the filibuster was countered by all Republicans and two Democrats, dooming an attempt to advance the voting rights legislation without Republican support.

By eliminating the legislative filibuster, Murkowski said the Senate “will take the easy way out.” Instead, she argued for Democrats and Republicans to come together to find consensus on the voting rights.

“I do believe that this Senate should pass a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act,” Murkowski said. “But I also believe that it must be a bipartisan effort.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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