The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the single greatest accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  The act bans racial discrimination in voting practices by all levels of government, and was enacted with the specific purpose of enfranchising millions of African-Americans in the South and Latinos in the Southwest, as well as those who had been shut out of the voting process because of their lack of English fluency.  Due to its overwhelming success,  the Voting Rights Act is often considered the “most effective civil rights law ever enacted.” Although a major component of the Voting Rights Act was held to be unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, some states are still experiencing the benefits the Voting Rights Act was meant to provide.

On July 19, 2013, nearly a month after the decision in Shelby County, NARF and co-counsels Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Armstrong Teasdale LLP filed suit on behalf of two tribal councils and two Alaska Native voters in federal court.  The suit was brought against Alaska State Election officials on allegations of violating the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution due to the state’s failure to provide oral language assistance to many Alaska Natives, whose primary language is Yup’ik.

At trial, the plaintiffs needed translators to explain why the lack of language assistance at the polls has disenfranchised their communities and rendered the political process unavailable to them all.  Lead Plaintiff, Mike Toyukak of the Manokotak Village explained to the court that voting information in his native tongue is imperative for the simple fact that he would finally be able to understand what exactly he is voting for.  Another plaintiff, Freed Augustine of the Village of Alakanuk, also explained why language assistance was necessary for his village.  “Sometimes I wonder if my votes count. Poll workers speak to me in English, but I don’t understand.  I didn’t understand any of the ballots but I still voted. We go to vote and vote, but we don’t know what to do and how to vote.”

The testimony of these two plaintiffs is extremely alarming for a number of reasons.  Firstly, as the plaintiffs explained, because they are unable to understand any of the voting materials, they are completely powerless when it comes to the political process in Alaska.  The laws that affect their way of life are passed by individuals that they are literally incapable of understanding. Secondly, and maybe more troubling, is the fact that these people who do not understand what they looking at are still voting.  In fact, they could be voting for a candidate that they would never vote for if they understood all of the voting materials.  That entire situation is frightening and disheartening.

The court in this case, however, recognized the defendants in this case violated Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 states, “Whenever any State or political subdivision [covered by the section] provides registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots, it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language.”  The court then ordered defendants to make major changes, including stationing bilingual translators at all polling places, and providing written and audio translation of all pre-election materials distributed in English.  Defendants were required to submit a progress report to the court detailing the state’s compliance with the court’s orders by November 2014.  It was not until September 30, 2015, however, that the plaintiffs and the State of Alaska came to an agreement which involved the implementation of a comprehensive language assistance program by the State.

This student contributor is pleased with the outcome of this case.  By providing the native people of Alaska with language assistance at the polls, they are now able to utilize their Constitutional rights fully.  Although it is unfortunate that they have been disenfranchised for this long, the outcome of this case is just another example of how the VRA is still necessary in the United States.

 

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