With voting rights bill blocked, Murkowski says ‘a good handful’ of senators are open to compromise

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks on voting rights Wednesday. (C-SPAN)

Alaska’s U.S. senators did not stray from the party line as Republicans on Wednesday defeated a major voting rights bill that was a top Democratic priority.

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ever the moderate, said she wants to negotiate a compromise. Faith in American democracy is at stake, she said.

“You’ve got part of the country that thinks this bill is about protecting the right to vote,” she said. “Another part believes that this bill will do nothing but undermine it. And so we’re both sitting in a situation, I think, where both sides are now set to cast doubt on elections if they don’t win.”

That Democrats didn’t win Murkowski’s support for the bill shows that this bill was never expected it to pass. This was a vote aimed at taking a stand, and Murkowski tried to stake out common ground.

For years, Murkowski has been the only Senate Republican to support restoring parts of the Voting Rights Act.  She sponsored bills that would again require states with a history of discriminating against minority voters to “pre-clear” changes in voting laws with the federal government. It’s an abomination to other Republicans who rail against federal control.

But even Murkowski didn’t like the 750-page mega-bill the Democrats put up for a Senate vote. Among other things it would’ve:

• expanded voting by mail and early voting opportunities.

• ended partisan gerrymandering for the U.S. House.

• allowed voters to show more types of ID at the polls.

• and restored the pre-clearance requirement.

Murkowski, like other Republicans, said it goes too far in telling states what to do. For instance, she said, the best way to enhance voting opportunities in Alaska may not be to require that early in-person voting be available for a period that includes at least two weekends, as the bill mandates.

“If you’re out in a village and you’re living a subsistence lifestyle, Saturday and Sunday don’t mean anything to you,” she said. “It’s when are the animals moving? When are the fish moving?”

Murkowski likes elements of the bill and she said she’s open to negotiating a compromise.

“I think that we need to do everything that we possibly can to avoid further polarizing voting rights and election reforms,” she said. “It may be just too late, but I think we have to try.”

“A good handful” of senators from both parties are also looking for common ground, she said.

That was not evident in the Senate debate. Speaker after speaker spoke of dire consequences if the other side wins. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., cited former president Donald Trump, who said recently that “sometimes the vote-counter is more important than the candidate.”

“And what Donald Trump means is this case is clear: He wants his loyalists to oversee our elections, to make sure the vote is always in his favor,” Murray said. “I mean, just sit with that. We’re not talking about hypotheticals here. The leader of the Republican Party wants to toss democracy out the window and change the outcome of any election results he doesn’t like.”

Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan is among the Republicans calling the bill harmful federal overreach.

“What these voting rights bills do is they take away the state’s prerogative to run their own system,” he said via Zoom at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Soldotna. “And I think that’s actually dangerous, from the perspective of election security.”

After Republicans blocked the bill with a filibuster, Senate Democrats took up a proposal to change the filibuster rules. But they didn’t have the votes to do that either.

KDLL reporter Sabine Poux contributed from Soldotna.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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