In bid to restore Voting Rights Act, Murkowski strays from party lines

The settlement of the Native vote lawsuit comes on the same day as news that Sen. Lisa Murkowski has co-sponsored a bill to revive the Voting Rights Act. Sen. Murkowski is the first Republican to join more than 30 Democratic co-sponsors on an issue that has divided the two parties.

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Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott told reporters he thanks Murkowski for supporting the Voting Rights Advancement Act, pending in the U.S. Senate. Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth thanked her, too.

“I think it’s a lot of work … in the Native community to share information with her, and it’s a recognition on her part that really access to the polls shouldn’t be a partisan issue and it’s unfortuntate that in recent years it turned into one.”

Democrats in Congress have been clamoring to restore the Voting Rights Act since 2013. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the 1965 Act. The law required several states to pre-clear any changes in voting procedures with the federal government, due to their history of ballot box discrimination. Alaska was one of those states. But the Supreme Court said the formula that decided which states had to pre-clear reached too far back in history, so since 2013, a chunk of the Voting Rights Act no longer applied. The bill Murkowski is co-sponsoring sets up a new formula, based on the past 25 years.

Landreth says under the new formula, Alaska would no longer be under a blanket pre-clearance requirement. But any state would have to get federal approval to change specific things about how voters access the polls. Landreth says the bill has a list of those triggers, and they’re similar to key features of the settlement in the Native voting rights case.

“When certain practices occur, no matter where they occur, they have to be pre-cleared, and that’s the removal of the only polling place, or removal of language materials.”

Murkowski won re-election in a write-in in 2010, thanks in large part to the Native vote. The senator is up for re-election again next year. Landreth, though, says Murkowski isn’t just acting out of self-interest.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I think that there are numerous senators with sizable Native populations and they haven’t jumped on in support of this.”

It’s unclear whether any other Senate Republicans will join Murkowski in supporting a restoration of the Voting Rights Act. Many see it as a law that gives too much power to the federal government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it’s a relic of times gone by.

“Obviously it’s an important bill that passed back in the ‘60s, at a time when we had a very different America than we have today.”

That’s what he said in 2013, and McConnell said much the same last month, on the 50th anniversary of the original Voting Rights Act.