ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — 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.
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.
The plaintiffs say the state has failed to provide complete translations of voting materials into Native languages. Plaintiffs say the state lags behind the law for Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in three regions.
The state contends its program meets legal requirements, providing sample ballots and oral translations for some Native languages. Witnesses for the state have said it has gone out of its way to consult with tribal councils.
Election officials have testified that if the state has failed some Native voters with limited English proficiency, it’s not for lack of trying. Officials say the state has been stood up and let down by translators and bilingual poll workers. Officials say that if they win the lawsuit, they would continue to improve language access.
In her testimony, Fenumiai said the state’s average precinct turnout in the 2012 general election was 40.2 percent. In the village of Manokotak, where one plaintiff resides, the precinct turnout was 47.5 percent, according to Fenumiai. Villages with a majority non-Native population in the state’s interior had lower-than-average-turnout, she said.
Fenumiai referred to a plaintiff’s legal documents that asserts that Native villages had “depressed participation rates” in 2012.
“I think the precinct turnout information does not reflect that,” she said.
Taking all voters into account, however, the statewide turnout in 2012 was just under 60 percent, she said. Also, village voters could obtain absentee ballots by mail or fax, but there were no in-person absentee or early-voting stations in any of the village regions, she said under cross-examination.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason is hearing the trial without a jury.