AFN Asks For Help in Voting-rights Campaign

Alaska’s largest Native organization is challenging a Southeast group to lead the regional campaign to regain federal voting-rights protections.

The Alaska Federation of Natives is already campaigning to restore voting protections struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

Speaking at a Native Issues Forum in Juneau, President Julie Kitka asked for regional help.

“You have the history in our Native community, helping leading us to getting us to the right to vote,” she said. “We need the full weight of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

The organizations have a hundred-year history of advocating for Alaska Native rights, including voting. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood have about 20 local chapters, called “camps,” mostly based in Southeast.

ANB Grand Camp (regional) President Bill Martin said the organizations are behind the effort.

“At our ANB convention in Yakutat in October we passed a resolution. And we’ll be there again this year, both the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, to voice our objections,” Martin said.

The federal Voting Rights Act used to require Alaska and some Southern states to get pre-approval for redistricting plans. That led officials to set some election district boundaries so they included significant Native populations.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that part of the act last year.

Bipartisan legislation proposed in January would restore some of those provisions.

AFN’s Kitka said a coalition of Latino, African-American, Asian-American and other civil-rights groups is backing the proposed amendment.

But she said it won’t do any good here — yet.

“At this time, we’re not included in that amendment,” Kitka said. “In fact, Native Americans get no protections under the formula that they use. And we calculate it would probably cost us $800,000 to file lawsuits enough … for us to be considered under that federal mechanism.”

That’s why her organization is seeking statewide support for changes to the act that would include Alaska Natives.

The Supreme Court ruling came as Alaska’s redistricting board shuffled election boundaries.

The plan used for the 2012 elections was a factor in the defeat of Southeast’s two incumbent Tlingit lawmakers. And that was before the high court’s ruling. It’s since undergone minor changes, but none expected to help either win back seats.

Kitka said restoring some of the voting rights act’s struck-down provisions would help more people cast ballots.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen increasing effort to try to really depress people voting as people try to angle for this campaign or that campaign,” Kitka said. “And so, from our vantage point, it’s critically important that we make sure we have that rock-solid foundation protection of our voting rights.”

The high court ruled redistricting pre-clearance was based on discrimination that no longer exists. Alaska’s Redistricting Board agreed, saying changes in Native voting power have more to do with population growth and rural-urban shifts than redrawing election boundaries.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.