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Alaskans Brace for Voting Rights Debate in U.S. Senate

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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Local activists joined family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, who were marching in Arizona, in rallying for federal voting rights legislation.

Alaska's minority senators not in favor of eliminating the filibuster.

The U.S. Senate begins debate on voting rights legislation this week.

Supporters say for the legislation to pass, the Senate will need to make changes to its rules. But both of Alaska’s senators say changing those rules is not a good idea.

In Soldotna on Saturday, a small group of protesters trudged through slushy snow on the Sterling Highway, touting signs that say “We Shall Overcome” and “Stop Jim Crow 2.0.”

One protester, Jackie Smith of Soldotna, said she supports the voting legislation for what it could do: block restrictive voting laws.

“Making voting more equitable, more reachable," she said. "Knocking down the roadblocks they’ve been putting up. Just trying to be heard in a state where sometimes it’s hard to feel like we’re heard.”

Smith (a member of KDLL's community advisory board) said she sent texts and emails to Alaska’s delegation in D.C. She said she’s mostly heard canned responses back.

“I don’t know. It’s a little discouraging," she said. "But we’ve gotta keep trying.”

The legislation before the Senate is a combination of two voting rights bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It would give the federal government more power to check voting laws passed by states.

Democrats brought those bills forward to combat what they say were attempts from Republican-led states to limit voting through measures like voter identification laws. Their legislation would make Election Day a national holiday and bring back a requirement that states with histories of voter discrimination get federal approval first before changing their voting laws, among other provisions.

The House passed the legislation. But it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, and is likely to die by the filibuster before a final vote. That Senate rule makes it so the bill would need 60 votes to pass.

Sen. Dan Sullivan was slated to speak to a joint chamber of commerce luncheon in Soldotna today, but was kept in D.C. to talk over the legislation. Over Zoom, he told Kenai Peninsula constituents he worries about the federal government taking control.

“What these voting rights bills do is they take away the state’s prerogatives to run their own systems," he said. "And I think that’s actually dangerous from the perspective of election security.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican to not flatly reject one of the bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

But she also said the filibuster is important.

“For voting rights, the Senate doesn’t need to change its rules here," she said on the Senate floor last week. "The majority needs to change its approach.”

Murkowski said she would like to see lawmakers work across the aisle. Only then would she feel comfortable passing a new law.

“I want to reach a compromise on it," she said. "I think that that would be important. But I acknowledge there need to be some changes that would need to be made to that and I have worked to suggest it.”

Back in Soldotna, Michele Vasquez said she knows the bill isn’t likely to pass.

“And I’m from the Deep South," she said. "So I am quite familiar with Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era. So this is extremely disappointing and depressing and troubling, for me personally. But for the country as a whole. Because there were so many people counting on these laws to pass.”

Still, she thinks it’s important to show up in support. She said she and other supporters won’t give up until all voters are protected under the law.

You can find the original story here.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL in Kenai. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula at KDLL, but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.