Lawsuit filed on behalf of Alaska Native voters 6-11-07

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A federal lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of Native voters in the Bethel area in southwestern Alaska whose primary language is Yup'ik.

The lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska seeks to have state and regional election officials provide oral and written voter assistance to Yup'ik-speaking voters in the Bethel area.

The lawsuit would require that elections officials come up with a plan to ensure that Yup'ik-speaking voters with limited English are able to understand, learn about and participate “in all phases of the electoral process.” It would require that federal observers be on hand for elections held in the Bethel area.

The lawsuit was filed against various state and local elections officials, including Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and Whitney Brewster, director of the state Division of Elections. Neither immediately returned calls for comment. The lieutenant governor's office said he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the problem extends beyond providing an official ballot for federal, state and local elections that voters can read. Officials also have failed to translate a host of other written voting materials including advertisements for voter registration, election dates, absentee voting opportunities, polling place locations and voting machine instructions.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, primarily Yup'ik speaking voters in the Bethel area are entitled to written voting materials in Yup'ik as well as oral assistance so that those voters can participate meaningfully in the electoral process, said Natalie Landreth, lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund.

“These populations are subject to English-only ballots,” she said at a news conference at Alaska's ACLU offices. However, “they have limited use and understanding of English.”

The lawsuit says election officials also have failed to provide an adequate pool of bilingual poll officials.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three registered voters: Anna Nick, 69, of Akiachak; Billy McCann, 78, of Bethel; and Nellie Moses, 72, of Akiachak. All the plaintiffs have limited English and are considered illiterate by the U.S. Census Bureau because they have a fifth-grade education or less, according to the lawsuit.

Landreth said what is being provided now is woefully insufficient - usually a single sentence of explanation on what are sometimes very complex ballot measures.

What ends up happening is that either voters don't cast a ballot because they are confused or find out later they've voted the wrong way and inadvertently hurt their communities, she said.

“It is a terrible choice for many people in these communities,” she said. “It is completely beyond a doubt that they are not casting a meaningful ballot.”

The lawsuit is targeting the Bethel area because that is where the problem is worst, said Jason Brandeis, an attorney with the ACLU of Alaska. He hopes that if the lawsuit is successful it will extend to other areas of Alaska.

“Our Constitution says everyone in our democracy has a right to vote,” Brandeis said in a statement. “But that right is meaningless if certain groups are unable to cast their ballots accurately regardless of how well-informed they are about the issues of the day.”

Brandeis said the Voting Rights Act has been successful in providing other minority communities in the United States with what's needed to vote in a meaningful way.

“In San Diego County, Calif., registration among Hispanics and Filipinos rose by 20 percent and Vietnamese registrations increased by 40 percent after a suit initiated by the Department of Justice. In New York City, language assistance has helped more than 100,000 Asian-Americans to vote,” Brandeis said.

Alaska is one of five states that is completely covered under the language assistance provisions of the federal voting law, Landreth said. About 19 percent of the population is Alaska Native or American Indian. The other states are Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Becka Baker, elections supervisor for the Nome Regional Elections Office who also is named as a defendant, said she couldn't comment until she'd seen a copy of the lawsuit.