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Election officials say they work hard to help Native language speakers

Richard Mauer

Two state election officials spent most of Tuesday testifying about the efforts they make to assist Native language speakers at village polling places.

Defending themselves against a voting rights lawsuit, the officials said they've translated difficult ballot measures, put notices on local radio stations and VHF village radio, and recruited bilingual workers and trained them to assist mainly elderly voters who struggle with English.

"We do our very best in recruiting bilingual outreach workers," said Becka Baker, elections supervisor for the Nome region. "We sometimes call everybody in a village trying to recruit election workers."

Baker is one of four named defendants in the federal lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund on behalf of two village elders in Southwest Alaska and four federally recognized village tribes.

The plaintiffs say the state failed to follow the U.S. Voting Rights Act even after accepting millions of dollars in federal grants to enhance voter access. They say the state Elections Division, run by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, has failed to provide language assistance that is required when Native Americans with limited English constitute a sizable minority in a region.

Using census data, the suit says the state lags behind the law in three regions -- for Yup'ik speakers in the Dillingham and Wade Hampton census areas in Southwest Alaska, and for Gwich'in speakers in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area in the Interior.

Baker and Shelly Growden, the state's elections systems manager, testified that they understand the requirements of the law and provide oral translations of the most important election material, such as registration information, sample ballots and ballot measures. But they described their primary tools as poll and outreach workers who speak English and Native languages and know the people in their villages.

But teaching the workers their part-time, short-term jobs isn't always successful, Growden said.

"When you say training is mandatory, that doesn't mean that all of your poll workers attend training?" asked James Tucker, cross-examining Growden for the plaintiffs.

"Unfortunately, it does not," she replied.

Growden described other frustrations, such as her inability to get translations into Gwich'in, the Athabascan language of the Interior. The last time she was able to arrange for translations was in 2008, she said.

This time around, she said, she contacted the Native Language Center and a Gwich'in speaker agreed to do the job, then backed out -- the language of the oil-tax referendum on the August ballot was so complicated that she gave up, Growden said. She's found someone else but hasn't heard back from the other person.

"I'm really getting desperate, I'm really getting nervous," Growden said. "I'm just praying I can get something."

But when Tucker rattled off about a dozen names of other people who could translate, some from the Yukon in Canada, Growden said she didn't know them and hadn't contacted them.

The complexity of the oil-tax measure also befuddled a panel of Yup'ik translators, she said. The panel recently met for two days but couldn't come up with a translation of the referendum. At one point, she said, they spent half an hour trying to figure out whether the word "barrel" in the measure referenced a 55-gallon drum or the standard 42-gallon barrel of crude.

"What resolution did they come up for the barrel?" Tucker asked.

"They came up with a term that was more generic," Growden said.

Growden's responsibilities included filing spending reports to the federal government for grants under the Help America Vote Act. She said that the full salary of the language coordinator in Bethel was paid through the grant. But Tucker said the employee who filled that job until recently had said that he only worked 10 percent of the time on languages. The rest of his time was spent on data entry for the division.

Growden denied he spent that much time off task but said data entry helped him understand his job.

"Have you in any of your reports to the (federal) Elections Assistance Commission said that at least some of the time at work was spent doing data entry?" Tucker asked.

"No," Growden said. "Part of the time was doing data entry, answering phones, filing -- it's everything related to that job."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com