Judge orders Alaska to help Yup’ik voters

By Mary Pemberton
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 8-08

A federal judge is requiring elections officials to provide Yup’ik-speaking voters in the Bethel area with language assistance so that they can participate in a meaningful way in state elections.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess issued his order during late July. The judge’s ruling stems from a lawsuit filed last year alleging a failure to satisfy provisions of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.

The ruling requires the state to provide language assistance, including trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik. Sample ballots will have to be written in Yup’ik. A glossary of election terms also written in Yup’ik will have to be provided.

The judge also has ordered that local tribes be consulted to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations. A Yup’ik language coordinator also will have to be provided.

The court is requiring both pre-election and post-election reports to track the state’s efforts to comply with the order.

“It is time to turn the page on the discriminatory practices of the past and fully allow Yup’ik voters and other Alaskan Natives the right to be included in the political process,” Jason Brandeis, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said in a statement.

The ruling applies only to state-run elections in the Bethel area.

“This is a huge victory, not only for Yup’ik voters, but for all Alaska Natives who want to participate in the democratic process,” said Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which brought the suit along with the ACLU on behalf of four tribal governments and four Alaska Natives.

Landreth said the lawsuit targeted the Bethel area because that is where the problem is worst in Alaska. Bethel is about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

The victory was a long time coming, she said.

“The state of Alaska has recently taken the first step toward complying with its obligations under the law. But as the court recognized, the state’s recent efforts to provide Yup’ik language assistance are ‘relatively new and untested’ over 30 years after Alaska was first required to provide that assistance,” she said in a statement.

Landreth said what elections officials have been providing 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.

Sarah Felix, the state’s lead attorney in the case, said Alaska already was doing many of the things the judge ordered. The two additional things the judge wants are written sample ballots in Yup’ik and progress reports, she said.

“The order essentially says we, the Division of Elections, is supposed to continue what we said we were going to do,” Felix said.

She pointed out that plaintiffs did not get several things they requested, including federal election observers. The order, she said, was “as good as it could be for the state.”

The upcoming Aug. 26 primary will be watched closely, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska. That’s because even after the state was made aware of the problem in 2006, nothing was done until the lawsuit was filed, he said Thursday.

That is one reason for why the court wants to receive election progress reports, he said.

Mittman said the ACLU was pleased to see the court address that issue while also noting that voting is central to a Democratic society.

“There really is nothing more important,” he said.

Alaska is one of only five states still covered in its entirety by the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The provisions are applied in areas where a certain number of citizens have limited proficiency in English.

In Alaska, the statewide provision also was applied because the state had a history of conducting English-only elections.

The other states are Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.