“Partial Ruling” Against State In Alaska Native Language Ballot Case

In Toyukak vs. Treadwell, plaintiffs argued that translation of state of Alaska ballot language from English into Yupik is not adequate to ensure voters’ understanding of the ballot. Four tribal councils filed the suit against the state division of elections last year, alleging the state violated the Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution by not providing language assistance to Yup’ik and Gwich’in speaking voters in three census areas.

State attorneys argued that because the languages are historically unwritten the Voting Rights Act requires only oral language assistance in these languages. The division of elections said it provides translators and bilingual poll workers. In a hearing Wednesday before a federal judge in Anchorage, Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth argued for the plaintiffs:

“But the federal court held this morning that they [state] were not providing even oral language assistance. Because they don’t ask or pay their outreach workers in the villages or bilingual poll workers to translate any of the information in the official election pamphlet. That was part of her holding today.”

Landreth says, plaintiffs want written information translated. Under the current system, Yupik speaking voters do not get a written election pamphlet in advance of the election.

“If you’re a Yupik speaking voter, the translated information you receive consists of three things. Here’s the day of the election, here’s the time of the election, here’s where it will be. And then there will be language assistance available at the polling place. There’s no advance information about the candidates, no advance information about bond measures, nothing about constitutional questions, nothing about ballot measures. To such a degree that the plaintiffs and other witnesses testified that the first time they find out about ballot measures is often when they go to vote on election day.”

Federal district court judge Sharon Gleason sided with plaintiffs. In a partial decision Wednesday, which addresses only the Voting Rights Act claims, Gleason said the division of elections has violated the Act by not providing substantially equivalent language assistance in Yup’ik and Gwich’in in the three census areas.

The court has given the state until this Friday, September 5, to provide a proposal for additional language assistance measures that could be implemented in time for the November election. Alaska assistant attorney general Corey Mills says that time is running out

“And the court also recognized the difficulty that the division of elections has in providing this type of assistance. So at this point, the judge basically said that by Friday, the state needs to come up with its proposal for how to adhere to her ruling and fix some of those language assistanceissues that the judge believes occurred, so the state and the division of elections and the department of law are looking at that and what that proposal will ential.”

The court did acknowledge the state’s efforts so far in providing ballot translations for Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers, saying the state has been working diligently this year in providing language assistance. Mills says there are other aspects of the case as yet undecided since the suit went to trial in June of this year.

“Basically, where we’re at, the judge gave a partial ruling that only affected the Voting Rights Act claim and the judge is going to follow with a full, written opinion that also addresses the other claims. So at this point we are just waiting to see what the court is going to do. And these proceedings are by no means complete. We don’t have a final judgement or a final decision, we only have a ruling on a specific issue.”

Mills says, with about two months until election day, the proposal will focus on what can be done in the limited amount of time remaining. NARF attorney Landreth says that plaintiffs have until Septembner 10 to respond to the proposal. Landreth says, if a further ruling on the Constitutional issue is in favor of the plaintiffs, it could mean federal observers would monitor Alaska elections.

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APTI Reporter-Producer Ellen Lockyer started her radio career in the late 1980s, after a stint at bush Alaska weekly newspapers, the Copper Valley Views and the Cordova Times. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Valdez Public Radio station KCHU needed a reporter, and Ellen picked up the microphone. Since then, she has literally traveled the length of the state, from Attu to Eagle and from Barrow to Juneau, covering Alaska stories on the ground for the AK show, Alaska News Nightly, the Alaska Morning News and for Anchorage public radio station, KSKA elockyer (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8446 | About Ellen