Remarks by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in defense of the Voting Rights Act and its special protections for Alaska Natives have come under fire from some in state government, but the first-term Democrat is standing behind them and even gaining some other defenders. Speaking in Juneau earlier this week, Begich criticized a bill in the Alaska Legislature that would require photo identification for voters, as well as the Parnell administration’s court attempts to overturn the civil rights legislation, which gives special protections to Natives and special authority over state elections to the U.S. Department of Justice. Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said Begich misrepresented what his House Bill 3 would do. “Contrary to his assertion before our Legislature, nothing in HB 3 erects any barriers to any voter,” Lynn said. That’s because requiring photo identification is not a barrier, he said. Begich maintained it is, citing some of his own staff members with elderly relatives lacking photo IDs who had for years voted and participated in their villages. They’d be barred from voting without the photo IDs, he said.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the state Elections Division, challenged Begich in a letter following his appearance and defended her division’s efforts to assist voters with language programs that provide ballots and voter information in Alaska Native languages as well as Tagalog and Spanish.
“The state has never printed translated ballots in historically unwritten Alaska Native languages, and has never been required to do so. Therefore, your statement that the state has ‘attempted to stop printing’ such ballots is misinformed,” Fenumiai wrote.
Begich Press Secretary Heather Handyside said Friday that the Voting Rights Act has protected Alaska Natives from barriers to voting created by their language and where they live.
“It’s sadly ironic the Division of Elections rests its defense on that act because this administration is in federal court today seeking to gut that very law,” she said.