Today, voting rights are under assault by political partisans whose agenda is threatened by a healthy democracy. Thirty-eight years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 143 years after passage of the 15th Amendment, Mead Treadwell and Bob Lynn have joined Republican state legislators and gubernatorial administrations from around the country in an assault on voting rights. They are motivated by a belief that widespread participation in our democracy results in Democrats winning elections. This Republican-led national assault on our democracy would be particularly devastating in Alaska.
In Alaska, Lt Governor Mead Treadwell is spearheading a lawsuit challenging the Voting Rights Act. He and Governor Parnell are attempting to eliminate the Voting Rights Act’s Title 5 protections for Alaska Natives. Under current law, the Justice Department must approve (or “pre-clear,” in legal terms) redistricting maps, polling place closures, termination of early voting opportunities, and other electoral changes proposed by the state. Title 5’s express goal is the protection of voting representation by Alaska Natives. Title 5 protections are critical to ensure that the first Alaskans maintain their most basic civil right.
Regardless of voting laws, Alaska is the most difficult state in which to vote. Lack of access to roads, geographic barriers make it harder to vote in bush and coastal Alaska than anywhere else in America. It’s already harder to vote for rural Alaskans because there isn’t early voting in the bush. Moreover, cuts to mail delivery have made it disproportionately difficult for rural Alaskans to mail in absentee ballots. Democratic legislators have introduced bills which would strengthen voting rights, including legislation to allow same-day voter registration.
Sadly, in addition to attacking Title 5, Republicans in the legislature have introduced legislation that will create more obstacles to voting. Representative Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) has introduced legislation to require presentation of photo identification by voters. This requirement sounds simple enough until one considers what a challenge it is to obtain such IDs in rural Alaska. Dozens of bush villages lack DMV offices, and Alaska has the most restrictive drivers’ license paperwork requirements in America. Under this proposed law, in order to vote, Alaskans will first have to travel to one of the few DMV offices in the state, present both a birth certificate (or passport) and a social security card, and pay money to obtain the license—all that just to vote.
Mead Treadwell and Sean Parnell have attempted to close polling places and early voting from villages around Bethel to the Southeast Islands. They have tried to remove Native Alaskans from the list of Alaska registrars. They have failed to provide bilingual voting assistance and been sued by the Native American Rights Fund for anti-Native gerrymandering and other violations of voting rights. In his address to the state legislature, Senator Begich criticized these actions and spoke out in support of Native Alaskans’ right to vote.
Our American democracy is more important than any political party. The legislature should reject legislation which would prevent Alaskans from voting, and the courts should reject the Treadwell/Parnell assault on the Voting Rights Act. All of us must remain vigilant to keep Native Alaska polling places open, protect Native Alaska voter registrars, and ensure there is bilingual voting assistance for Native Alaska communities. All Alaskans have a right to vote and we must unite together to protect this fundamental right from anyone who would attempt to disenfranchise any Alaskan at the polls.
Mike Wenstrup is the Chair of the Alaska Democratic Party.