JUNEAU, Alaska - A state elections official is calling on U.S. Sen. Mark Begich to correct statements he made about access to voting in Alaska.
Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said she strongly disputes Begich's assertions that the division has made it harder to vote or that the state has imposed any obstacles to voting.
Begich, in his annual address to state lawmakers Monday, said he was concerned about "recent trends" in Alaska making voting more difficult, particularly for Alaska Native and other minority groups. He said the Parnell administration has fought against Native language ballots and is seeking exemption from federal review of state election law.
He also noted a voter ID bill proposed by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, that Begich said would make it harder for many rural Alaskans to vote. Lynn has disputed that.
"And let's make sure that at the end of the day, every Alaskan, no matter where they live, who they are, where they come from, what language they speak, can vote in our elections," Begich said in the speech.
The state last year sued over provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act it deems unconstitutional: a requirement that it receive approval from the U.S. Justice Department for redistricting plans or proposed election changes and the formula used to identify states that must get approvals. The case is on hold pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case that has implications for the state.
Fenumiai, in a letter to Begich dated Wednesday, said Alaska has a "robust" language assistance program mandated by a section of the Voting Rights Act that the state is not challenging.
"The State is not in any way attempting to decrease the assistance we provide to Alaskan voters who require language assistance," she wrote. Instead, it's seeking to administer and improve its voting laws without "unwarranted interference" from the federal government.
"The Alaska Divisi on of Elections knows more about Alaskan voters, Alaska Native languages, and local Alaska conditions than federal government officials do," Fenumiai wrote.
Restoring local control of elections "will benefit, not disserve, all Alaskan voters," she said.
Fenumiai said the state's interest in the litigation does not reflect any lack of commitment to ensuring that Alaska Natives have the same access to the ballot and ability to elect representatives of their choice.
"I hope you will take the time to publicly correct your statements," she said.
An email seeking comment was sent to a Begich spokeswoman.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees Alaska elections, is exploring a possible run against Begich, a Democrat, next year.
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