A top Alaska elections official testifying in a federal Native voting rights trial disputed claims that villages with sizable populations of limited English speakers vote in lower proportions than elsewhere in the state. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai took the stand Wednesday 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 testified that most of the village precincts beat the state’s average turnout in the 2012 presidential election if only precinct-level turnout numbers were examined, the Anchorage Daily News (http://is.gd/5OYggI ) reported. Fenumiai’s office, however, provides more voter services in urban areas, such as easy access to early voting and absentee balloting. She said voters who cast absentee or early ballots aren’t counted in the turnout numbers of their home precincts.
Alaska: Expert in Native voting rights trial says Alaska has long history of discrimination | Anchorage
An expert testifying in the federal voting rights trial in Anchorage said Monday it’s possible to trace Alaska’s current failure to provide full language assistance to Native language speakers to territorial days when Alaska Natives were denied citizenship unless they renounced their own culture. “This represents the continuing organizational culture, looking at the law as something they’re forced to do, instead of looking at the policy goal of being sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate,” said University of Utah political science professor Daniel McCool. “It’s part of a pattern I see over a long period of time, a consistent culture — they’re going to fight this. When forced to do something, they’re going to do it, but only when they’ve been ordered to.”
The official who coordinated the Division of Election’s Yup’ik language program knew the translation for a radio announcement was off but suggested ignoring it anyway. Emails entered as exhibits during a federal voting-rights trial include a 2009 back-and-forth between the division’s then-language coordinator in Bethel, Dorie Wassilie, and her boss, Shelly Growden. The emails came in the midst of a prior lawsuit, settled in 2010. Wassilie, in her email, said the division would be criticized by the plaintiffs if they caught it, “but what the heck, it’s a similar word and hope that it goes right over their heads! :-)” Wassilie, a Yup’ik speaker, wrote to Growden. Growden, who does not speak Yup’ik, responded: “I too think it should be fine.”
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.
Alaska: Trial opens in lawsuit claiming Alaska denied Native rights in voting material translations | Associated Press
A federal trial began this week in a voting rights lawsuit filed by several Alaska villages, alleging the state has failed to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Native languages. State officials denied voting rights to Alaskans with limited English proficiency because voting information lacked Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in translations, according to the lawsuit filed last year on behalf of four Native villages and elders with limited English skills. The state says elections officials have taken all reasonable steps to implement standards for voting materials for non-English speakers that are equivalent to those for English speakers. The state Division of Elections provides several methods of oral language assistance, a trial brief says.
A federal trial is underway to determine whether the State of Alaska does enough to serve voters who speak Native languages. Toyukuk v. Treadwell was brought by two Alaska Native voters, along with two tribal councils. Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, is arguing the case. She says there’s a “huge amount” of voting information available to people who speak English, Spanish, and Tagalog, compared to the amount of materials for speakers of Yup’ik and Gwich’in. Landreth says the disparity amounts to discrimination.
Originally, it was thought that holding Kenai Peninsula Borough elections by mail would be more cost effective, but according to a fiscal note, it would actually cost more money. “I was disappointed because I initially thought … that we could actually save money, but the extra printing and postage costs added up,” said assembly member Bill Smith. However, the assumed savings were a secondary consideration, Smith said about an ordinance he sponsored to require vote-by-mail elections. His main motive is to increase voter participation. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for tonight’s borough assembly meeting.
With little discussion and unanimous approval, some Kenai Peninsula Borough district lines have shifted slightly. The borough assembly OK’d revisions to six assembly and board of education district boundaries at its Tuesday meeting last week. The changes stem from the Division of Election’s adjusted precinct boundaries for Alaska Legislative Senate and House of Representatives districts, which were finalized in February. The assembly-approved revisions eliminate some discrepancies between precinct and district boundaries to eliminate the need for multiple ballots in the adjusted areas.
A federal judge on Wednesday overruled state election officials and said the constitutional right to vote requires Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages for voters with limited English skills. Siding with village plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and three other Alaska election officials, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that as a matter of law, the state is obligated to match all English materials — including pamphlets, instructions, registration materials and ballots — with Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in translations. Gleason still plans to conduct a trial at the end of the month into whether the state Elections Division, headed by Treadwell, is in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act’s language requirements, and if so, what remedial steps should be taken. The lawsuit was brought by the Anchorage office of the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund on behalf of four Native villages in western Alaska and the Interior and two Western Alaska elders with limited English proficiency. Treadwell is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
This year’s October election could see more Kenai Peninsula Borough residents casting votes from their kitchen tables. An ordinance requiring borough elections be held by mail is up for introduction at Tuesday’s assembly meeting. Assembly member Bill Smith sponsored the ordinance, which proposes that instating vote-by-mail precincts borough-wide would be more efficient, convenient, save money and could increase voter turn out. “We’re hoping that we’ll get some good results if we go to vote by mail and make it easier for people and have better voter turn out,” Smith said.
Trial is scheduled for next month in a case alleging failure by the state to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Alaska Native languages. The lawsuit was brought by several Native villages and elders last year against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and members of the Divisions of Elections, which Treadwell oversees. The Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in the lawsuit allege the state is violating language provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing election materials in their Native languages. The state, in court filings, defends its Native languages program as robust, involving outreach to villages, bilingual poll workers and translated ballots. While the program may not be perfect, the law doesn’t demand perfection, only that “all reasonable steps” be taken to assure voters who speak limited English are “effectively informed of, and participate effectively in, voting-connected activities,” the state contends.
If you think it’s hard to understand ballot measures when they’re written in English, consider the translations into Yup’ik prepared by the Alaska Division of Elections. Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent 30 minutes trying to decipher a translated 2010 ballot measure proposing a law to combat corruption. He gave up on the version given to Yup’ik voters by the state and went to the original English to figure it out. “I have spoken Yup’ik my entire life, I teach it, write papers about it, and speak it almost daily. I should be able to review this ballot and understand it with ease. In fact, I had to ask for a copy of the English version to compare and try to discern the meaning of it,” Charles wrote in a report. Charles is expected to be a key witness in the U.S. Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought last July by four Native villages and two western Alaska elders against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, and three members of the Elections Division he supervises. Because it involves elections, the case has been moving quickly for a civil matter and is scheduled for trial June 23 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to change the date of the regular municipal election from April to November starting in 2017. Assemblyman Chris Birch, who introduced the measure, said that moving the city’s elections would boost voter turnout, citing historical data that recent city races have drawn 20 to 35 percent of voters, while there has been a 50 to 60 percent turnout for recent state races held in the fall. The ordinance passed in a six to four split, with Assembly members Tim Steele, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman and Dick Traini opposing the change. Patrick Flynn was absent from the vote. Mayor Dan Sullivan has said he supports the switch. While some Assembly members offered other solutions to amp up voter turnout, like switching to mail-in votes or connecting voting to Permanent Fund Dividends, all who commented stressed the need to bring more voters to the polls.
Alaska’s largest Native organization is challenging a Southeast group to lead the regional campaign to regain federal voting-rights protections. The Alaska Federation of Natives is already campaigning to restore voting protections struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Speaking at a Native Issues Forum in Juneau, President Julie Kitka asked for regional help. “You have the history in our Native community, helping leading us to getting us to the right to vote,” she said. “We need the full weight of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is pushing his Democratic colleagues to strengthen the protections for minorities in their proposed update to the Voting Rights Act. Begich said the bill introduced in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) does not do enough for minority voters, especially native populations in Alaska. Begich expressed concern that Alaska would not have to clear voting procedure changes with the federal government under the bill. A transparency provision that requires notice of voting changes is little consolation, he said. “This is cold comfort considering that the burden is entirely on the voter to find out about such changes,” he said in a letter to Leahy.
A new version of Anchorage Election law, or Title 28, will be before the Assembly at their next meeting. Officials began reviewing the law after problems with an election in 2012. The rewrite comes after polling places ran out of ballots in 2012, even though the turnout was expected to be high and extra ballots had been printed, but not quickly distributed to polling sites. The result was long delays or citizens being turned away. Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser says the clerk’s office worked closely with the election commission along with the department of law for about a year to streamline the voting process.
The Alaska Republican primary ballot next year will be a tale of two Dan Sullivans. Former state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, a first-time candidate, announced a challenge last month to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, the better-known of the two, is running for lieutenant governor. The presence of more than one Dan Sullivan is causing some confusion in polling on the two races, but it may not necessarily have negative repercussions for either candidate in the Aug. 26 primaries. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of advertising in this inexpensive state over the next nine months, any lingering confusion could conceivably provide the Senate candidate a few extra points of support. “From a strategy point of view, I think it’s to both parties’ interests — because both parties benefit from the other party’s advertising — to not dispel it until the primary is over,” said Marc Hellenthal, a veteran Republican pollster in the state whose client is the Anchorage mayor.
A state court judge accepted Alaska’s latest redistricting plan Monday, saying the newly redrawn political boundaries meet constitutional standards. Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy also found the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decisions regarding truncation of certain Senate seats due to changes in the makeup of those districts pass constitutional muster. He said the record does not support any inference that the standard adopted by the board for what constitutes a substantial change in a district was chosen to protect Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a concern that had been raised among the plaintiffs. Senators generally stand for re-election every four years, but terms for some members can be truncated if a new redistricting plan results in substantially different districts for them.
Proper oversight of voting policy and procedure is being questioned in Alaska’s elections due to the lack of language assistance for Yup’ik speakers. The federal lawsuit, Toyukuk v. Treadwell, filed by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), claims that Alaskan officials have violated the Voting Rights Act, as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments, by failing to provide appropriate language assistance to native Yup’ik speakers. The suit claims this lack of assistance has prevented them from fully participating in the election process and suppressed voter turnout. According to a case update on the NARF website, Natalie Landreth, Senior Staff Attorney with NARF, “Without complete, accurate, and uniform translations, the right to register and to vote is rendered meaningless to many Native voters.” Precedence on this issue is found in similar lawsuits (such as Nick et al. v. Bethel et al settled in 2010) that have questioned the implementation of language assistance mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, the state of Alaska is covered under section 203 of the Act which has led to specific implementation strategies. The Alaska Division of Elections website states “In addition to on-call translators available on Election Day, the Division of Elections provides oral language assistance through the use of bilingual registrars, outreach workers, bilingual poll workers, and translators in communities where there is a need.”
Two elderly Yup’ik speakers and two tribal organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against Alaska, saying state election officials have failed to provide language assistance at the polls as required by law. The lawsuit was filed Friday, naming Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, as a defendant, along with his director of elections, Gail Fenumiai. Regional election officials in Fairbanks and Nome were also sued, The Anchorage Daily News reported. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund, says the state is violating the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing ballots and voting instructions for speakers of Yup’ik and its dialect in Hooper Bay, Cup’ik.
Helen McNeil remembers sitting in her grandmother’s living room in Juneau listening to her relatives talk about some people who’d recently moved in from the villages. When these people tried to register to vote in Juneau, they were presented with a literacy test. McNeil’s grandparents were officials in the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood, which advocates for Native people’s rights in southeast Alaska. “They ended up going to the ANB hall, and getting an ANB representative to go with them and it was cleared up,” she said. “So they were able to register to vote.” But in the villages, she said, where ANB and ANS presence wasn’t always as strong as it was in Juneau, literacy tests were used to keep Natives from registering to vote. It was a problem that often came up for discussion at ANB meetings, she said.
A sense of relief was palpable on Sunday afternoon as the Alaska Redistricting Board adopted a revised voting district map, potentially ending the board’s seven-month saga of drawing and redrawing the state’s voter districts. The map in place, used in the 2012 elections, was found to be unconstitutional by the courts. Alaska’s voting districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census, but the board was forced to go back to the drawing board after its last attempt was rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court, which said that before making adjustments to protect minorities, districts must be socially and economically integrated, as well as compact. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in June, the redistricting board’s process was somewhat streamlined.
After being sent back to the drawing board by the Alaska Supreme Court last winter, the Alaska Redistricting Board released a new plan this week that did away with some creative groupings, especially for southeast Alaska. The board plans to vote on the plan on Sunday. Under the past plan, new lines were created for House Districts 36 and 37 of Southwest Alaska. House District 36, represented by Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, stretched from the western coast of Cook Inlet, across the Illiamna Lake region to Bristol Bay, then north into the Yukon and Kuskokwim area. Edgmon no longer represented the Alaska Peninsula or the Aleutian, Shumagin, and Pribilof Islands communities — which were in House District 37.
The Alaska Redistricting Board announced Friday it intends to begin work on redrawing the state’s voting districts, a week after a Fairbanks Superior Court judge chastised the agency for sitting idle despite a state Supreme Court order to start the process. The board plans to begin the process on Wednesday, the The Associated Press reports, and will shoot for producing a final plan by July 12. Every 10 years, Alaska’s voting lines are ordered redrawn according to the latest U.S. Census data. The redrawing of the state’s voting districts in 2012 sent state elections into a frenzy, with 59 of the 60 seats in the Alaska Legislature up for re-election, and allegations by Democrats that Republicans on the board had reconfigured the state’s voting districts to their advantage. Critics also complained that the new map disenfranchised Alaska Native voters living in rural Alaska.
Why has Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach taken such an active interest in Alaska’s elections? The Kansan, an adviser to Mitt Romney last year on immigration policies and a national figure in the Republican party’s conservative wing, testified before the Alaska Legislature in support of a voter photo ID bill. He also recommended that Alaska join the “Kansas Project,” a multi-state effort to look for duplicate voter registrations. Alaska Natives say a photo ID rule would be a roadblock to voting in the Bush. A decline in turnout there, with its traditionally heavy Democratic vote, could affect the 2014 reelection hopes of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning state. One of his potential rivals is Alaska’s top election official, Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Treadwell says he doesn’t support the voter ID bill, but Kobach says Treadwell was instrumental in getting him involved in promoting the Alaska legislation.
A Fairbanks judge gave a stern rebuke to the Alaska Redistricting Board, saying in a decision Thursday that it was not worthy of the trust placed in it by the courts and accusing it of acting in a “dilatory” and “disingenuous” manner. Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy, the judge hearing challenges to the failed redistricting plan under which the 2012 election was held, said the board’s proposal to wait until August to begin crafting a new plan was unsatisfactory. He said the board had the computer power to draw new boundaries in a matter of days should it choose. “There is no reason to delay this process further,” he said.
As the Alaska Redistricting Board sits mostly idle despite a December 2012 state Supreme Court decision that ordered all 40 voting districts to be redrawn, a Fairbanks Superior Court judge Thursday offered up a verbal smackdown to the board, chastising the inaction and ordering public hearings related to the next redrawing process. “Alaskans are no closer to having constitutional voting districts today” than they were in December, said Superior Court judge Michael McConahy. Every 10 years, Alaska’s voting lines are ordered to be redrawn according to the latest U.S. Census data. In Alaska, not only are there state requirements to be met, but any redistricting plan must also appease the federal Voting Rights Act. Alaska is among several states requiring Department of Justice confirmation that minority groups aren’t subject to discrimination by proposed voting changes.
It appears someone registered to vote in Alaska and another state cast ballots in both states during the November election, an Alaska elections official said Thursday. Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said the matter was sent to the criminal division of the Department of Law for review earlier this month. “At this point in time, it appears to be the same person,” Fenumiai told The Associated Press. “Signatures look the same. Other information matches. And I believe it’s the same person.” She declined to identify the other state.
The Alaska Redistricting Board will have to draw a map in line with the state constitution, but its final plan doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatically different from the one that ended up in court, the Alaska Supreme Court has affirmed.
The court issued an order on April 24 in response to questions posed by the board regarding the process it was expected to use in the latest court-mandated revision of the redistricting map. The order requires the board to first draw a map that complies with the Alaska Constitution before making changes to meet the federal Voting Rights Act that requires protection of Alaska Native voters. It’s a process that was set out by an earlier lawsuit and is known as the Hickel process. The court had already found the board failed to comply with the Hickel process in rulings last year.
The Alaska Redistricting Board has gone once again to the Alaska Supreme Court, this time asking the justices to clarify whether an earlier ruling requires it to redraw all of Alaska’s legislative districts from scratch. But while the board waits to hear if the court responds, it is doing little else. An attorney representing opponents of the previous redistricting plan has accused the board of wasting so much time that the 2014 election may have to be held under the same interim districts that yielded one-party rule in Juneau in the 2012 election. “They should get started sooner rather than later,” said Fairbanks attorney Jason Gazewood, representing two Fairbanks-area voters who successfully challenged the board’s 2012 districts in their area and fear a new plan will once again have constitutional flaws.