Politics

Mallott changes Alaska election chief as lawsuit, voting issues loom

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott abruptly removed Alaska's longtime elections chief from office on Friday, saying through an aide that he appreciated her work but also wanted a change in the department, which has been embroiled in a lawsuit over Native voting.

Claire Richardson, a special assistant to Mallott, confirmed Monday that he sought the resignation of Gail Fenumiai, who had been with the Division of Elections for 15 of the last 20 years and the department's director since January 2008. Her last day was Friday, the same day she was asked for her resignation by administrative director Guy Bell, Richardson said.

"The lieutenant governor is certainly wishing her well in her future endeavors. This was nothing personal," she said. Fenumiai was a professional elections official with a long history of service, she said.

One of Mallott's main roles is overseeing the Division of Elections and he had the next three-and-a-half years in mind, Richardson said.

"He'd like it to be the best in the nation, so he was looking for some new leadership," she said.

Mallott, who was in Canada Monday and not available for comment, has already named Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke to fill the post.

"This is going to be a steep learning curve for me," said Bahnke, whose friends and family call her Josie. She said she would look to regional elections supervisors and other staff members for guidance and also examine what other states are doing. She said she built strong relationships with Nome staff members and the City Council during her nearly seven years as city manager and expects to do the same as elections head.

Bahnke, who is Inupiat and was born in Nome, said she expected to talk with Mallott about his goals and vision for the office and how to improve it. She wasn't ready to discuss specific initiatives, such as same-day voter registration, generally seen as a way to improve voter turnout. But the overall direction for the office will be "to improve access to all Alaskans, in the big cities and also in rural Alaska," Bahnke said.

Fenumiai made $135,000 a year. Bahnke will start at $120,000, Richardson said.

Some number of voting issues need attention in Alaska, Richardson said. An online voter registration project that has suffered from delays and contractual issues still needs to be completed, she said. Alaska's AccuVote ballot-counting machines, installed under then Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, are aging. And the state needs to resolve a federal voting rights lawsuit, Richardson said.

A group that included Yup'ik-speaking elders and four village tribes sued the state in 2013 over its failure to provide ballot and candidate materials in Native languages. A federal judge in September ruled for the plaintiffs, represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, on some aspects of the case and ordered the state to step up efforts to provide help to Yup'ik and Gwich'in speakers in three rural areas of Alaska, including Bethel, in the November general election.

Fenumiai testified last summer in the federal trial that election officials had not reached out to Yup'ik speakers outside of the Bethel area or to Gwich'in speakers in the Interior the way it had in Bethel, where it was required to do so under the settlement of a 2007 lawsuit. She also asserted that written materials did not need to be translated, as long as bilingual poll and outreach workers as well as recorded translations were available.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled against the state and ordered a new strategy to help Native language-speaking elders get access to the same information as English speakers. But the state failed to follow through on even the limited provisions ordered by Gleason, the Native American Rights Fund said in a January court filing.

Gleason has not yet ruled on an assertion in the lawsuit that the state intentionally violated the constitutional rights of Native language speakers. The plaintiffs were asking for election observers similar to what the U.S. government provides to developing nations.

The state and the plaintiffs still are in negotiations over the constitutional claims, according to status reports filed in court.

Bahnke will start her new job Oct. 1. She and her husband, Dennis, a fisherman, will move from Nome to Juneau. She previously worked for the state from 2004 to 2008 providing technical guidance to rural communities in the Bering Strait region, and she worked as a legislative aide in Juneau from 1996 to 1999. She holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Portland State University.

In Nome, she has been overseeing large projects, including a new library, museum and cultural center that will be named after the late state Rep. Richard Foster.

"We build things around here," Bahnke said.

Fenumiai began her career with the state Division of Elections almost 20 years ago. She spent much of her state career there, detouring for five years to work in the administrative office of Govs. Frank Murkowski and Sarah Palin. She was given two weeks severance pay, and will keep her state insurance coverage through August, Richardson said.

Efforts to speak with Fenumiai Monday were unsuccessful.

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