Sponsored Content

In voting rights trial, Alaska elections chief contends village voter turnout above state average

Elections Division Director Gail Fenumiai rejected claims Wednesday that villages with sizable numbers of limited English speakers also turn out to vote in lower proportions than elsewhere in Alaska.

Testifying as the state's last witness in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by village tribal organizations and elders against her and other election officials, Fenumiai said most of the village precincts beat the state's average turnout in the 2012 presidential election. She said the plaintiffs in the case, who say the state isn't doing enough to assist Yup'ik and Gwich'in speakers who have trouble with English, compared "apples to oranges" when they cited statistics showing low turnout.

But under cross examination, Fenumiai herself appeared to be drawing false comparisons, in part because her division provides more voter services in urban areas than it does in the Bush, such as easy access to early voting and absentee balloting. Voters who cast absentee or early ballots aren't counted in the turnout numbers of their home precincts, she said, which would have the effect of lowering urban precinct turnout in the division's statistics even though more voters actually went to the polls.

The issue of turnout is one of the key measures in the lawsuit. The Native plaintiffs say the failure of the state to provide language help as required under the U.S. Voting Rights Act is suppressing turnout in traditional villages in Southwest Alaska and the Interior.

They're asking U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason to order remedial action by directing the state to translate a suite of election materials into Gwich'in and all the Yup'ik dialects of the Dillingham area and the villages of the Wade Hampton Census Area north of Bethel. They also want Gleason to retain supervision over the state in much the same way the Justice Department did under a provision of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year. That "preclearance" by the court would prevent the state from changing any practice unless it could demonstrate the change wasn't discriminatory or negatively affected the right to vote.

The state wants the lawsuit dismissed. It says it already has a vigorous language program. If the state has failed some Native voters with limited English proficiency, it's not for lack of trying -- it's been stood up and let down by translators and bilingual poll workers, its officials have testified. They promised that if they win the lawsuit, they'll still continue to improve language access.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Gleason is hearing the case without a jury. She hasn't said when she expects to render a written ruling, which is likely to run in the dozens of pages.

Testifying for the state, Fenumiai said turnout numbers in most of the villages at issue were higher than the state's average -- if only precinct-level turnout numbers were examined. The state's average precinct turnout in the 2012 general election was 40.2 percent. In Manokotak, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village where plaintiff Mike Toyukak resides, the precinct turnout was 47.5 percent, Fenumiai said. In all, 11 of 12 Wade Hampton precincts beat the state average, as did five of eight in the Dillingham region, she said.

Villages with a majority non-Native population in the Interior, like Bettles, Central and Manley Hot Springs, had lower-than-average turnout, she said. The Native villages beat them substantially, she said.

Citing one of the plaintiff's legal documents that asserted that the Native villages had "depressed participation rates" in 2012, Fenumiai said, "I think the precinct turnout information does not reflect that."

But taking all voters into account, the statewide turnout in 2012 was actually just under 60 percent, Fenumiai said. Early voters, absentee ballots and questioned ballots accounted for 19.3 percentage points in that total -- and they did not figure into the precinct averages because of the way the state counts ballots.

While village voters could obtain absentee ballots by mail or fax, there were no in-person absentee or early-voting stations in any of the village regions, Fenumiai said under cross examination. Anchorage had at least two, she said, as did Fairbanks and Juneau, with one in Wasilla.

Under a settlement from a 2007 voting rights lawsuit covering Bethel, the state has been providing translations into Yup'ik of some documents, including ballot measures and candidate statements. But the plaintiffs contend than even when some of that material has been made available to Yup'ik speakers in other areas, it's in the wrong dialect.

But one of the state's witnesses who testified Wednesday, Oscar Alexie, an assistant professor of Yup'ik at the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska, said words in different dialects can be readily understood by the speakers of any version of Yup'ik. Alexie serves on the panel that translates English election material into the Central Yup'ik dialect.

As an example, Alexie described visiting a student in Hooper Bay and walking out on the tundra. When it was time to go back, the student didn't say the Central Yup'ik word for "return." Instead, the student said, "Let's twist." Alexie said it was clear what he meant -- twisting back to where they began.

Describing the translation of the 2008 anti-corruption ballot measure, Alexie said the panel had no Yup'ik word for "lobbyist," so they settled on a word related to persuasion. Alexie rejected criticism for that choice, saying another suggested word actually meant "to comfort," as a parent does for a child.

"I've been down lobbying as part of the faculty," Alexie said. "I don't think I was comforting our legislators."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 257-4345.