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Native speakers focus of voting rights trial

Posted: July 2, 2014 - 2:03pm

ANCHORAGE — Two Alaska election officials testifying in a Native voting rights trial say they work hard to help Native language speakers, and describe their primary tools as bilingual poll and outreach workers who know the people in their villages.

Becka Baker, election supervisor for the Nome region, testified Tuesday in Anchorage that election personnel do their best in recruiting bilingual outreach workers.

"We sometimes call everybody in a village trying to recruit election workers," she said.

Baker is among four defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund on behalf of several Native villages and elders, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The plaintiffs say the state has failed to follow the U.S. Voting Rights Act, 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.

Also testifying Tuesday was Shelly Growden, the state's election systems manager. She said teaching workers their part-time, short-term jobs isn't always successful, and she noted poll workers don't always attend mandatory training.

Baker and Growden said they understand the law's requirements and provide oral translations of the most important election material, such as sample ballots, ballot measures and registration information.

Growden also described her inability to get translations into Gwich'in, saying the last time she was able to arrange for translations was in 2008.

She said she contacted the Native Language Center this time around, and a Gwich'in speaker agreed to do the job, then backed out. Growden said the language of the oil-tax referendum on the August ballot was so complicated that the worker gave up.

Growden said she has found someone else but has not heard back from them.

"I'm getting really desperate. I'm getting really nervous," she said. "I'm just praying I can get something."

When plaintiffs' attorney James Tucker listed about a dozen names of other people who could translate, Growden said she didn't know them and had not contacted them.

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