Alaska Makes a Change: Lt. Governor Replaces State Election Director

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[Image courtesy of all-flags-world]

NOON Eastern: This post has been updated to identify Sean Parnell as the former Governor of Alaska – not the current Governor, as identified in the original post.

This blog rarely has much news or analysis from the 49th State, but this week sees two big stories … on Tuesday, I wrote about the effort to link voter registration to Alaska Permanent Fund dividends. Almost immediately afterwards, news broke that Gail Fenumiai, the state election director who has served for years in that position, had resigned at the request of the Lieutenant Governor (who is the chief state election official) in favor of a replacement from local government. Alaska Daily News has more:

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.

One issue that may have precipitated the change was the lawsuit over how well the state serves the native Alaskan population:

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.

Fenumiai’s replacement will bring an understanding of native Alaskan issues as well as local government experience – which some are seeing as a counterweight to her lack of elections experience. KTUU.com:

Alaska Native leaders are supporting Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot’s Monday decision to appoint Nome City Manager, Josie Bahnke as the new director of the Division of Elections. The decision was deemed controversial in light of Bahnke’s lack of experience with electoral process.

She comes to us with a great resume,” said Kim Reitmeier, president of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Associaion. “She mentioned she’s got a steep learning curve ahead of her and we’re anxious to help her with that.”

According to Reitmeier some of the issues that ANCSA would like to see addressed in the future are equal access to polling for rural voter, better poll worker training, and expanded voter registration options. The group is co-sponsoring a ballot initiative that would use the Permanent Fund Dividend to register voters or to update voter registration.

Reitmeier hopes that Bahnke will help bring Alaska into a new era of voting options. “It’s more than Alaska Native issues, it’s all of Alaska. We are significantly behind the times in technology in what we do,” she said.

Former GOP Governor Sean Parnell (defeated for re-election by independent Bill Walker who ran with Mallott on a fusion ticket in 2014) doesn’t necessarily agree with the switch:

[Former g]overnor Sean Parnell is calling the former [director], Gail Fenumiai, a “true non-partisan.” In a statement to Channel 2, Parnell wrote that Fenumiai “made vast improvements in voter security.” He also said she “led in making dramatic progress in language assistance for Alaska voters.” He went on to add that Fenumiai “increased access and availability of voting to Alaskans”.

This should be an interesting situation – especially as the state moves toward the 2016 election. Bahnke is not only relocating from Nome to Juneau but is likely to be traveling a steep and tricky learning curve.

Stay tuned …

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