This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
The U.S. Supreme Court ended automatic federal election oversight in nine states and parts of seven others with its decision this week on a section of the Voting Rights Act.
Alaska — one of the nine states that were fully covered — no longer has to submit redistricting or any other election law changes for approval by the Department of Justice or federal judges.
We’ll pass on the redistricting ramifications for now. Suffice to say that the redistricting board now must simply satisfy the Alaska Constitution and the state Supreme Court.
What does it mean to individuals, especially Alaska Natives and other rural voters?
The administration celebrated the decision as a victory over federal overreach.
If overreach it was, it was overreach unanimously supported by Alaska’s then all-Republican congressional delegation in 2006: The late Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young all voted to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years — an extension backed by Alaska’s Native organizations. The vote was unanimous in the Senate, overwhelming in the House.
“Federal overreach” has nothing to do with the history of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and reauthorized several times since.
Voter discrimination against blacks was a fact of life in much of the South. Voter discrimination against Alaska Natives — primarily through English language requirements — also was a fact of life. The Voting Rights Act aimed to guarantee by way of federal enforcement a fundamental right in this representative democracy in jurisdictions where that right had been systematically and deliberately denied.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued that while the act’s enforcement formula made sense in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the nation has changed. He’s right — to a point.
But recent events argue against any blithe notion that the days of discrimination or voting barriers are over. In 2008, Justice Department questioning compelled the Alaska Division of Elections to reconsider and then withdraw a plan to close polling places in three Alaska villages, a move that would have required villagers to travel up to 77 miles — off the road system — to vote.
The division couldn’t recruit election workers in the villages. That’s a problem. But the solution was not to shut down polling places and effectively disenfranchise voters. Enforcement of the Voting Rights Act made sure that didn’t happen.
The Division of Elections also has lost court cases involving language assistance.
This isn’t to say the division has undertaken to systematically block voters. But it is to say that systematic enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has been the most reliable insurance for minorities — and without the expense of a legal challenge — that they’ll get to exercise the right guaranteed by the 15th Amendment.
So where do we go from here?
Alaska’s response should be to work harder to guarantee every registered voter has the opportunity to vote, with no regard to party, ideology, race or location. In the case of the villages cited above, the Division of Elections should be prepared to send out an election worker. Expensive? Democracy is expensive — and worth it.
The “taint” the administration spoke of doesn’t lie in the fact of federal oversight. The taint is in any reason the feds had to intervene.