State Challenged On Native Translations Of Election Materials

Before the District Court’s ruling on Wednesday directing the state to translate all election materials into Native languages for voters with limited English skills, another effort to reach the same goal was in the works.

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U.S. Senator Mark Begich was working to turn back to what he calls protections that were in place until a year ago. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to require nine states with a history of discrimination, including Alaska, to get federal pre-clearance on election changes. Begich recently introduced the Native Voting Rights bill in Congress.

“This will do a couple of things that I think are pretty important in ensuring ballots are translated into all written Native languages, and the state can’t close down polling booths and deciding where election booths should go without the Justice Department participating and reviewing those,” Begich said. “And also consultation between DOJ and tribes.”

Native American Rights Attorney Natalie Landreth says the Native Voters Rights bill would reinstate federal scrutiny of some election changes:

”Not as to all election changes,” Landreth said. :Only for specific kinds of things that are inherently suspect such as taking away early voting, removing the only polling place in a village, combining polling places in villages that are separated, that kind of a thing.”

“So you wouldn’t have preclearance for all voting changes, just for that small subset of them.”

Landreth says the legislation is needed because Alaska has a duel system for elections – one for urban areas and a less accessible, less convenient one for rural Alaska.

“Those of us who live in cities were unaware of some of the existing voting barriers in rural Alaska. Most of rural Alaska does not have early voting. A lot of villages have no polling places. There are more than 70 that have no polling places at all,” Landreth said. “A lot of places, the majority, where Native languages are spoken are not receiving adequate language assistance so voters understand what they are voting for. There are some serious, serious problems.”

In the 1960s, Alaska was tagged for pre-clearance because it provided English-only election materials and ballots to voters. The state has argued translations into Native languages were useless because the languages were spoken, not written, and few Natives read their language.

Lt. Gov. Mean Treadwell, a Republican candidate for Begich’s Senate seat, says the state sided with Alabama in the Supreme Court case because Alaskan elections are fair and pre-clearance is an unnecessary waste of time.

“We entered the Shelby county case to try and bring decision-making home,” Treadwell said. “Federal overreach on our elections had gotten so absurd that I could not even put an email address on a voter registration form without getting DOJ permission.”

Treadwell says he’s kept every polling place open that was there when he was elected. And he’s taken steps to have more.

“But getting good people to work on elections, we’re very interested in seeing that expanded,” Treadwell said. “We’ve done a number of things, from working to pay people more, to offering training for people who want to be election workers, to sending people out to villages to actually run elections when we can’t find people in a community.”

Treadwell says he’s open to a dialogue about how to improve elections.

“Elections are a sacred right and I don’t want this to become a political football,” Treadwell said. “It’s very, very good that we do everything we can to expand access to elections.”

Begich’s Native Voting Rights Act also would allow people to register using tribal identification cards, which are based on documentation and genealogies maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Other Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, Dan Sullivan and Joe Miller, did not respond to email requests for comments on the Native Voting Rights bill in time for this broadcast.