Dem senator: Voting rights bill too weak

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is pushing his Democratic colleagues to strengthen the protections for minorities in their proposed update to the Voting Rights Act. 

Begich said the bill introduced in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) does not do enough for minority voters, especially native populations in Alaska. 

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Begich expressed concern that Alaska would not have to clear voting procedure changes with the federal government under the bill. A transparency provision that requires notice of voting changes is little consolation, he said. 

“This is cold comfort considering that the burden is entirely on the voter to find out about such changes,” he said in a letter to Leahy. 

Native Alaskans are a key constituency for Begich, who is facing reelection in a red-leaning state this year. He said it is important to protect these groups who have been historically discriminated against. 

“Many Alaska Native elders remember not so long ago when there were signs in our state capital distinctively marking, ‘No Dogs and No Natives allowed’ on community buildings and storefronts,” he said.

He said he plans to introduce an amendment to Leahy’s bill that would address his concerns.

“Our intent is to prevent practices that unfortunately have still occurred in Alaska: closure of polling places, removal of absentee voting or early voting opportunities, and the decrease or removal of language assistance for voters who speak a language other than English to name a few,” he said.

Under Leahy’s bill, which has bipartisan support, the federal government would have to pre-clear any state’s voting procedure changes if that state has received five or more violations of voting laws in the last 15 years. 

Only four states would currently have to receive preclearance. Alaska, which had previously needed pre-clearance, is not among them. 

Lawmakers have been seeking an update of the Voting Rights Act since last summer, when the Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the law that required a number of states with a history of voter suppression — including Alaska — to clear all new voting regulations with the federal government. 

The court ruled that the criteria are outdated and gave Congress the option of updating it. 

At the time, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) applauded the Supreme Court’s move and Alaska had previously sued to invalidate the pre-clearance requirements.