Weekly Clips from March 7, 2013 through March 21, 2013
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-AK
Juneau Empire: April 5: Erin Shine, left, Yasmine Habash, center, and Debra Higgins, all staff to Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, watch as Alaska Sen. Mark Begich arrives for his annual speech to a Joint Session of the Legislature on Monday.
Alaska Daily News: March 10: The sparring over whether U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was correct in his assertions last week that the Parnell administration and some legislators seek to suppress Native voting may foreshadow a larger battle in the 2014 election.
That conflict would follow a story line of the 2012 presidential election: Did some Republican-governed states attempt to place roadblocks in front of traditional Democratic voters, such as the elderly and minorities, to tip the field in favor of Mitt Romney? That question ended up in several courts before the November election and was seized as an issue by President Barack Obama’s supporters.
And now the issue appears to be coming to Alaska.
In his annual address to the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, Begich said he and other Alaskans were concerned “about recent trends in our state making voting more difficult,” especially for Alaska Natives and the growing Hispanic communities. He criticized the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell for trying to get a section of the U.S. Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional, as well as legislators who are backing a bill to impose new identification requirements for voters, such as a photo ID.
Begich’s speech was soon followed by a statement from the author of the voter ID bill, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, that he was “shocked” that Begich could conclude his measure would make it harder to vote for rural residents, whom the state even allows to drive without picture identification.
Two days later, Alaska Elections Director Gail Fenumiai asked Begich to correct “two misconceptions” in his talk and denied that the state’s two-prong legal attack on the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act was an assault on minority voters.
“I strongly dispute your assertions that the division makes it more difficult to vote here or that the state has imposed any obstacles to voting,” Fenumiai wrote in a letter to Begich released by her staff.
Begich answered that he “stands firm” on the points in his speech and that rural Alaska Natives had come to depend on the Voting Rights Act “to protect themselves from barriers at the ballot box.”
An Alaska Democratic Party official followed up with examples backing Begich, citing attempts by the Elections Division to shut down village polling places and to fail to provide assistance to speakers of Yup’ik and other Native languages until ordered by a federal judge in Anchorage. That case, before U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, a George W. Bush appointee, only concluded in 2012.
“This is really an issue of national importance,” said the official, Zack Fields, communications director for the state Democratic Party. When voting is less restrictive, he said, Democrats do better.
Republicans say that when voter identification rules are lax, ballot fraud becomes a problem.
JUSTICE DEPT. OVERSIGHT
The 2014 election holds big stakes in Alaska. Begich, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state, is up for re-election, a race that could determine whether Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate. While centrist Democrats like Begich have shown they can win a statewide election here, the contests are usually close.
Republican Gov. Parnell is also standing for re-election — unless he chooses to run against Begich. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, has already announced that he is exploring a run against Begich.
The Alaska Redistricting Board, which remade the legislative map for the 2012 election, is under orders by the Alaska Supreme Court to redraw at least some districts by 2014. Under the 2012 map, Democrats ended up with small minorities in both houses of the Legislature, and two Native legislators and the sole African-American legislator were replaced by whites.
Most of the issues related to Native voting — the village poll closings, voter identification, preserving legislative districts where enough voters are Native that they would have strong influence on the outcome, election material made available in indigenous languages — are tied to protections under the Voting Rights Act. Alaska is one of nine states — most are in the South — that are subject to Justice Department supervision under Section 5 of the act. That means that any change to voting procedures must be cleared by the Justice Department before it can be implemented.
Native American Rights Fund Attorney Natalie Landreth, a specialist in the Voting Rights Act in Anchorage, cited the example of the small Prince William Sound village of Tatitlek, where in 2008 the Division of Elections proposed to shift its polling place 33 miles away to Cordova. No road connects the two communities.
Fenumiai, the election official, said the division proposed the Tatitlek consolidation and others were proposed because of the difficulty in finding poll workers.
“Every election cycle we struggle to find poll workers in those communities, even reaching out to the tribal council offices for names and not getting any success there,” she said. The division alerted the Justice Department to the change, and said it would accommodate the villagers with absentee ballots.
The Justice Department responded with a “MIR” letter — more information requested.
“It would’ve taken the division a very long time to answer that and we were butting up against the election, so we just made the choice to withdraw the request,” Fenumiai said.
To Landreth, that was one of many examples of how Section 5 helped villagers, assuring them of the same fundamental voting rights held by urban residents. To the state, it was an example of federal interference.
The Parnell administration is fighting the Voting Rights Act on two fronts. It has joined a challenge to Section 5′s constitutionality brought by Shelby County, Ala., next door to Birmingham, where the infamous Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor loosed police dogs and fire hoses on unarmed demonstrators in the 1960s — a direct cause of the civil rights legislation that followed. And it filed its own lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking an order removing the state from Section 5 oversight.
“Section 5′s preclearance requirement is onerous and time-consuming, creates uncertainty and delay, and places Alaska’s elections at the mercy of Department of Justice attorneys in Washington, D.C.,” the state said in its complaint. “Alaska cannot make the smallest change to its election procedures, even those that do not affect minority voting, without prior permission of the Department of Justice.”
The Voting Rights Act would likely prevent Rep. Lynn’s voter ID bill from ever becoming law in Alaska, as long as Section 5 remains intact, Landreth said.
Before the current legislative session began, Lynn, the chair of the House State Affairs Committee, had vowed to hear the bill as one of his committee’s first orders of business. Nearly two-thirds through the session now, that hasn’t happened. The Supreme Court will decide the Shelby challenge by the end of its term in June, so the legislature will know whether Section 5 still exists in its 2014 session, in time to pass the bill before the election.
Lynn’s bill would require a photo ID to vote — the first time Alaska has had such a requirement. The bill says a voter could also use two pieces of non-photographic evidence, such as an original or certified birth certificate or a government license. That replaces the current identification requirement, which allows for a single form of identification that could include a bank statement, utility bill or government or payroll check showing the name and address of the voter.
In his speech to the Legislature, Begich said that requirement would disenfranchise elderly village voters, including the grandparents of two of his staff members. They’ve never gotten an ID, he said. “I’m going to tell you right now, they’re not getting one. But they vote, and they participate in their villages.”
Begich also accused the Parnell administration of opposing Native language ballots.
Fenumiai responded that the division currently provides assistance to speakers of several Native languages as well as Tagalog for voters from the Philippines living in Kodiak, and Spanish.
But the division and the city of Bethel were sued by the Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union for failing to provide language assistance in the Bethel region. The Elections Division lost that case, first under a temporary restraining order issued by Judge Burgess in 2008, and then the final order in 2010.
Until the lawsuit, Fenumiai said, “The division never realized or was told that there were any problems or issues with the language assistance that was being offered.”
Landreth said there are still language access problems in rural Alaska that have yet to be resolved. \
Alaska Native News: Sen. Mark Begich pressed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to step up their measures to plug legacy wells and requested that Bud Cribley, BLM Alaska state director, formally and personally reassure Alaskans that BLM has a workable plan for the wells.
“I trust you are well aware of the widespread desire in Alaska to see these legacy wells addressed as soon as possible,” stated Sen. Begich in his letter. “Given that pressure, what options are available to your agency to expedite the FHPA review for all the wells at one time? What resources are available to your office to move the review quickly and at the least cost to taxpayers?”
Sen. Begich pledged to assist BLM while making it clear that the agency was ultimately responsible for clean-up efforts. “While I stand ready to assist from my position on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, Alaskans expect better results on the legacy well issue than they have seen to date,” stated Begich.
The full text of the signed letter can be read here.
Alaska Daily News: At a hearing today of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) U.S. Sen. Mark Begich grilled officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the backlog of disability claims preventing veterans everywhere from receiving critical benefits they earned for their service in the U.S. military.
During the hearing, Begich highlighted the outdated and ineffective system by explaining that the most common request his office receives from constituents is to assist a veteran in claiming their benefits.
“Today’s hearing confirmed what I hear from veterans in Alaska every day – the VA is mired in paperwork, they don’t have a process to deal with it, and our veterans are paying the price,” said Begich. “This is totally unacceptable and I will be staying on top of the VA to make sure we get this bureaucratic mess straightened out and that our veterans get the benefits they have earned and deserve.”
Begich also pressed the VA to report back on moving electronic records between DOD and VA to cut down on wait time for service men and women transitioning out of the military.
Alaska Daily News: Senator Mark Begich took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to respond to a letter sent by eight senators to the Senate Energy Committee excluding Alaska from the oil and gas revenue sharing enjoyed by southern states along the Gulf of Mexico.
“I take exception to my colleagues—especially colleagues on my side of the aisle,” said Begich. “As this letter is laid out, it’s really just about opposing offshore development of any kind. These folks just don’t like oil and gas. That’s how I read it.”
Begich referenced the Alaska Adjacent Zone Safe Oil Transport and Revenue Sharing Act, the bill he introduced on January 31, 2013 to secure a share of federal revenues from offshore oil and gas development. These revenues would be directed to the State of Alaska and Alaska’s coastal communities in the same manner it is provided to Gulf Coast states from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. It will provide support to state, local and tribal governments for public-sector infrastructure required to develop the resources, address the impacts in affected communities and, if necessary, respond in terms of emergency.
Additionally, Begich’s bill requires oil and gas from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to be brought to shore through a pipeline. “The pipeline is safer than tanker transport and ensures future through-put for the Trans-Alaska pipeline that feeds this country.”
The measure breaks down stakeholder sharing by providing Alaska with 37.5% of the federal bonus bids and royalty share from any energy development, fossil or renewable. Of that 37.5%:
25% is directed to local governments;
25% is directed to Alaska Native village and regional corporations;
10% is directed tribal governments;
40% goes to the State of Alaska. The bill also dictates that:
15% of the federal share of royalties is directed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund
7.5% of the federal share is dedicated directly to deficit reduction.
The complete speech can be viewed in our video section.
Alaska Dispatch: March 14: A voter ID bill that drew sharp criticism from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich on his recent visit to the Alaska Legislature is moving forward, with its sponsor denying the senator’s claims about the bill.
Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said his House Bill 3 was the victim of “misinformation” spread by Begich, D-Alaska.
“Nothing whatsoever in House Bill 3 prevents anyone from voting if they are registered and motivated to vote,” he said Thursday, while chairing the House State Affairs Committee hearing his bill. Those who don’t have photo ID can present other forms of identification or cast questioned ballots, he said.
Compared to a poll tax
Stricter voter ID requirements was the focus of Begich’s remarks – and his criticisms were reinforced at a hearing Thursday by Jeffrey Mittman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and Joy Huntington of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Mittman likened the cost of getting an ID to an unconstitutional “poll tax” that would likely be overturned, if challenged, in court. Begich has stood by his comments as well.
Huntington said she didn’t get a photo ID until age 20 when she got her drivers’ license. Before that, she only drove four-wheelers around the village. Many Native elders don’t have photo IDs either, she noted. But Elfin Cove’s Travis Lewis supported the bill, and said it was needed –even in his small Chichagof Island community. It wouldn’t make legitimate voting more difficult, he contended.
“I can’t imagine anyone in this day and age who doesn’t have proper identification,” he said.
Despite numerous comments saying there was no voter fraud problem to address, Lewis said he’d seen what looked like it in Elfin Cove.
“We have people from other states with voter registration cards who are voting in our community,” he said. Those people may well be voting elsewhere as well, he said.
Aimed at fraud
Supporters of the bill, such as co-prime sponsor Lynn, call the proposed regulation necessary to protect elections against the possibility of voter fraud.
“Even one case of voter fraud is one case too many,” said Forrest Wolfe, a member of Lynn’s staff.
Other committee members expressed skepticism that the bill’s goal was worth the risk it could inhibit legal voting.
Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said she was uncomfortable with the bill, even if it only disenfranchised the few people who got by without photo ID.
“It’s a handful of people in the state, but I don’t care if it is only one person, their vote has value and they shouldn’t be disenfranchised,” she said.
Vice-chair Rep. Wes Keller, R-Mat-Su, the bill’s other prime sponsor, urged the committee to pass the bill on to the Judiciary Committee, so questions about its legality and constitutionality could be addressed. He assured them that allowing it to pass out of committee was not an indication of support, though he did note that he personally supported it.
While some committee members expressed skepticism, only Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said he was opposed, calling the bill an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
“I feel it flies in the face of reality as far as there being an actual problem,” he said.
The move to Judiciary, the bill’s second and final committee in which it will be heard, may look much much like its first committee.
The bill’s two prime sponsors, Lynn and Keller, reverse their roles from House State Affairs when it goes to Judiciary. There, Keller is the chair and Lynn is the vice-chair.
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com