by Adam Barger, Contributor

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.”

The 2010 Bethel case resulted in Alaska agreeing to provide an array of language assistance options and programs in addition to paying up to $975,000 to the plaintiffs. Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, chief elections officer and one of the named defendants in the complaint, has pointed to these provisions as evidence of Alaska’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Currently, Alaska provides language assistance to groups whose voting age population of limited English proficient speakers  make up more than five percent of the population. These groups include Spanish, Filipino, Yup’ik, Inupiaq, and Koyukon Athabascan. Assistance measures include on-call translators on election day, bilingual registrars and outreach workers, and bilingual poll workers. Additionally, audio translations of election information are provided via radio and television public service announcements. Audio and visual links to these and other services are posted on the Alaska Division of Elections website and are categorized by language.

Despite these services, Landreth claims that Alaska is not doing enough. She contends that Alaska needs to fully extend these services to all Yup’ik speakers in outlying areas including Dillingham and Wade Hampton, which are south and northwest respectively, of the Bethel area identified in the 2010 settlement.

It is clear from these disparate perspectives that the language of voting is far from clearly defined. Whereas Alaska has taken decisive action since 2010, many Native voters continue to fully participate in the voting process. The comments from one of the plaintiffs in the case best illustrate this fact. According to Fred Augustine, speaking through a translator, “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.”

The parties are currently engaged in discovery though a trial date is not currently set.


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