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Alaska elections worker ignored mangled Yup'ik translation, court hears

  • Author: Richard Mauer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 26, 2014

The official who oversaw the state Election Division's Yup'ik language program knew that a mangled translation about absentee balloting was running on radio in Bethel and Dillingham in 2009 but told her bosses to just ignore it.

Instead of saying "absentee voting," the notice on KYUK and KDLG said, "to be voting for a long time."

"We will be criticized by the plaintiffs if they catch it, but what the heck, it's a similar word and hope that it goes right over their heads! :-)" Dorie Wassilie, the Election Division's language coordinator in Bethel and a Yup'ik speaker, wrote in Sept. 17, 2009, email to her boss, Shelly Growden.

Growden, who doesn't speak Yup'ik, agreed with Wassilie's judgment. "I too think it should be fine," Growden replied.

The emails were entered as an exhibit Thursday in the Voting Rights Act trial brought by four tribal organizations and two southwestern village elders against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state's top election official, and three of his deputies. The trial, in its fourth day, is being heard in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

The plaintiffs, represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, say the U.S. Voting Rights Act requires the state to accurately translate all English election material into Yup'ik, Cup'ik and Gwich'in and are seeking an order forcing the state to comply. The state says its more modest language program, translating some ballot language into Yup'ik, using touch-screen ballot machines with audio translations at some precincts, and providing bilingual interpreters at most village polling places, meets the requirement of law.

In her 2009 email, Wassilie was referring to plaintiffs in an earlier voting rights case, Nick v. Bethel, settled by the state in 2010 in what was described as a big win for Yup'ik-speaking elders with limited English skills. The current lawsuit, Toyukuk v. Treadwell, seeks to extend the Nick case to the regions around Bethel and Dillingham and to Venetie and Arctic Village in the Interior.

Taking the witness stand Thursday, Growden excused the tone of Wassilie's 2009 email as the outgrowth of an increasingly testy environment as the Nick lawsuit worked its way through court.

"Ms. Wassilie was taking it personally, the attacks on the Elections Division," Growden said. "She was becoming somewhat gun shy."

Wassilie left her job in 2012.

Under questioning by plaintiff attorney James Tucker, a private attorney from Las Vegas working with the NARF attorneys, Growden acknowledged that Wassilie was given clerical duties even though her salary was fully paid by the federal government to work on language access. Among her duties was to input data from newly registered voters, Growden said.

"It was so she could be completely familiar with registration," Growden said.

The job is now funded 50-50 by the state and federal governments, Growden said. A new coordinator has just been hired after the man hired to replace Wassilie didn't work out, she said.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that directed the Justice Department to supervise state election officials in Alaska and eight other states, mostly in the South, Alaska officials dreaded the calls from the Justice Department attorney who worked with Alaska, Growden said.

Explaining an email to Wassilie in 2012 in which she described getting a "disturbing call" from Sarabeth Donovon, the voting rights attorney, Growden testified, "All calls with Sarabeth Donovan are very disturbing. ... It was a contentious relationship for a number of years."

The Oct. 10, 2012, phone call related to the lack of public service announcements for the upcoming 2012 election as well as English sample ballots that were not translated into Native languages, the email said. Growden asked Wassilie to translate a public service announcement into Yup'ik for local radio stations and arrange to have it recorded in Inupiaq as well.

"It's not fun to get a call from Sarabeth," Growden said on the witness stand.

"I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear that," Tucker said.

The non-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason is expected to run till the end of next week.

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