Alarmed by persistent barriers to voting in Alaska and across the nation, U.S. Senator Mark Begich this week introduced strong legislation to safeguard the voting rights of Alaska Natives and Native Americans. The bill, the Native Voting Rights Act of 2014 (NatiVRA), provides the resources and oversight necessary to ensure that every citizen, regardless of ethnicity or language, can exercise their right to vote.
“It’s high time for Congress to act to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, which safeguarded Alaska voters’ rights for more than 30 years,” said Begich. “My bill will renew key voting protections that make sure all Alaskans have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. It also includes new protections that provide direct access to justice for people and tribes whose rights are being violated. Making the voting process more difficult because of poorly translated ballot language or burdensome identification requirements is nothing more than thinly veiled discrimination.”
Begich was prompted to write the bill in the aftermath of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted almost 50 years of voting rights progress. He is also co-sponsoring a bill introduced earlier this year by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (S. 1945), which seeks to restore key voting protections.
Across the country, state legislatures have passed dozens of measures that create barriers to participating in our elections, from reduced polling hours and locations to onerous identification requirements. Representatives from Alaska Native groups have cited ongoing voter discrimination and asked for assistance to ensure Alaskans living in rural areas, especially Alaska Natives, are able to cast their ballots during elections.
“The sad truth is that there are still many obstacles when it comes to voting in Alaska, especially in rural Alaska where Native languages are still the primary languages for elders,” said Begich. “As recently as two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice had to intervene in Alaska election procedures to protect this most basic right. I am especially concerned in light of recent steps by the State and some legislators to create new barriers to voting. Alaskans can be sure that I will continue to fight to ensure that all Alaskans – no matter where they live or what language they speak – have open and unrestrained access to the polls.”
Specific provisions of the bill will:
- Restore federal or judicial oversight of practices that have historically been shown to be hallmarks of voter discrimination, like closing all physical polling locations in a community;
- Ensure that ballots are translated into all written Native languages;
- In states that require documentation to verify identity for voting, allow Native American and Alaska Native citizens to use valid Tribal or Native Corporation identification;
- Provide tribal leaders a direct pathway to request federal elections observers and requires public access to the official reports of those observers; and
- Require annual consultation between DOJ and Tribal organizations to discuss voting issues.
“I am proud to offer this legislation, which relies on Congress’ unique authority over tribal relations, to supplement Chairman Leahy’s strong efforts to address this problem,” said Begich.
Begich was joined by several of his Senate colleagues in introducing this important measure, including Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Senator Mazie Hirono (HI), Senator Tim Johnson (SD), Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (MT), and Senator John Walsh (MT).