Congress Shows No Urgency on Voting Rights Act

In June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a key formula of the Voting Rights Act. Section IV of the 1965 law determined which states needed to get federal approval before changing any voting laws. Alaska was one of nine states subject to that rule known as preclearance.

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Immediately following the ruling, a frustrated Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the decision.

“Existing statutes cannot totally fill the void left by today’s Supreme Court ruling,” Holder said. “And I am hopeful new protections can and will pass in this session of Congress.”

Congressional action is highly unlikely anytime soon.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion that voter discrimination still exists. The court did not invalidate the entire act, just the formula determining which states need federal scrutiny.

Those states include Alaska, and there have always been those in the states who have thought that was unfair, including Governor Sean Parnell, who ordered the state to join the lawsuit against it.

The Court ruled that Congress could update the formula it uses to determine which states those are. The guidelines had not been updated for decades.

“Right now there’s no appetite,” Congressman Don Young said, explaining there is no real enthusiasm in Congress to tackle the issue now.

He adds the Department of Justice can still enforce the Voting Rights Act if there’s proven discrimination, it just can’t require permission in the nine states previously covered under Section 5.

Alaska does work to ensure Native participation in the electoral process. It provides interpreters to regions in the state with high populations of people who don’t speak English well enough to understand the ballot. Young says in some of those cases, the interpretation services are insufficient.

“Some cases or the elderly, probably not,” Young said. “But it’s hard to find any Alaska Native that doesn’t speak English.”

Congress is on recess until the second week of September. It returns to just nine legislative days before the end of the fiscal year. So the floor calendar – however slim – will be filled with debates on funding the government and raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have held preliminary hearings since the Court struck down section four. And to some, like Senator Lisa Murkowski, that may be all that happens.

“Because I’m not sensing there is this drive,” she said. “Right after the Supreme Court ruled on this there was a lot of discussion, a lot of talk going around, but you didn’t hear this unanimous cry that we’ve got to go out and address legislatively.”

Murkowski credits the Alaska Native vote for her general election success in 2010.

The state has a history of discrimination against Alaska Natives. At one point it required literacy tests to vote. In 2010 a federal court determined the state’s interpretation services in Bethel were insufficient.

James Tucker, of counsel with Wilson Elser, argued that case. He recently filed suit in the same court, alleging the state has not implemented the changes required statewide.

He says even though the Supreme Court struck down federal preclearance for the entire state, some protections remain intact, like section 203. That’s the provision that provides for language assistance.

“What remains is that the State of Alaska continues to be covered in a total of nine different areas of the state,” Tucker said. “Seven of those are for Alaska Native language; Two of those are in the Aleutian Islands for Filipino and Spanish.”

Senator Mark Begich is the only one in the delegation who says Alaska still needs to be subject to federal oversight. He says the state should spend more resources assuring everyone who wants to vote can. He dismisses attempts from some Republicans that would require IDs at the polls.

“They spend a lot of energy claiming we have fraud, which of course we don’t,” Begich said. “They spend a lot of energy on that, and that’s to deny capacity the people to deny access to voting to certain people in Alaska.”

Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who oversees the Division of Elections, ignored calls for comment. He’s also running for the nomination to replace Begich in 2014.

The issue is searing with politics.

Speaking Monday in San Francisco, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to make voting rights her major focus for the foreseeable future, that from the person many assume to be the frontrunner in the next presidential election.

Clinton told the American Bar Association broad, bipartisan coalitions of Congress reauthorized the Act in 2006.

“In the past 15 years under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the Department of Justice has used to the law to block nearly 90 discriminatory changes to local and state election rules,” Clinton said. “And many more were withdrawn under scrutiny.”

She ticked off a list of recent election changes since the court invalidated section four. On Monday, the Governor of North Carolina signed into law a bill reducing early voting and ending same-day registration.

“These are all changes that would have required approval under the Voting Rights Act but not can go forward without scrutiny,” Clinton said. “By invalidating preclearance, the Supreme Court has shifted the burden onto citizens facing discrimination.”

The issue may not see any legislative action, but it will certainly get its fair time in the run up to the next election.

For his part, Senator Begich predicts Congress will do something. He won’t say whether it will happen before the 2014 race – a race where he’ll need every Alaska Native vote he can get.