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Not speaking our language

Alaska Natives fight for election assistance

WASHINGTON - Plenty of attention has been paid to the importance of the Native vote this election season, but less scrutiny has focused on whether American Indians - especially those who are largely proficient in their tribal languages over English - have been given sufficient resources to understand ballots and other election materials.

The issue is reaching a boiling point for members of four tribal communities in Alaska, who are currently arguing in federal court that state and local election officials haven't provided them with effective oral language assistance and voting materials in their traditional Yup'ik language. Yup'ik is the primary form of communication for Natives in the Bethel, Alaska, region.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund, both of which are representing the Native plaintiffs in the case, say that with the exception of two poorly translated radio ads in 2006, no other election information has been provided to date in the Yup'ik language.

''The most fundamental right in a democracy is the right to vote,'' ACLU Alaska Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said. ''There have clearly been insufficient public announcements and other election information presented in Native languages in the state.''

Mittman also noted that there have long been funds available under the Help America Vote Act to address the shortcomings, but election officials have not been using them in past elections.

The Alaska Natives filed a motion in Alaska U.S. District Court in May, arguing that election officials have violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In mid-June, the court scheduled a hearing before a three-member judge panel in July to determine the validity of the plaintiffs' claims.

''We're pleased that the court is taking the time to hear oral arguments,'' Mittman said. ''We are certainly optimistic that the court understands the importance of this issue.''

The Alaska Native plaintiffs hope that the federal court will rule in their favor in time for state and local elections coming up in August and federal elections in November. They are also requesting that federal observers oversee elections in the Bethel area through 2012.

Federal law mandates that if more than 5 percent of the voting age population in a certain jurisdiction are members of a single language minority and have limited proficiency in English, then that jurisdiction must provide oral and written assistance in the minority language. More than 400 jurisdictions are covered by this provision of the law, including much of Alaska.

The law also requires that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, which is applicable in many Alaska Native communities, must submit all election law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice for review before changes are implemented. The aim is to prevent jurisdictions from enacting laws that would impair or interfere with the right to vote, such as forbidding the use of tribal identification cards or requiring state-issued driver's licenses.

Both the state of Alaska and local election officials in Bethel are rigorously disputing the charges. Lawyers for the state defendants filed a motion June 11 arguing that Yup'ik isn't a historically written language, which would remove their obligations under federal law. The local defendants also filed a motion at that time arguing in effect that the statute of limitations for them to do anything has run out.

The court has yet to rule on the defendants' claims, but the Native plaintiffs strongly dispute the arguments, noting that there are two historical written forms of Yup'ik.

Meanwhile, the state's Division of Elections has tried to craft a new language assistance plan that would likely address some of the plaintiffs' concerns, but the Justice Department has asked that the state provide more information on how these changes actually differ from what they had been doing in this area. As of now, the state has not provided additional information.

Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska's Division of Elections, said she could not comment on the ongoing litigation, or whether the new plans were aimed at addressing the Native plaintiffs' concerns. But she did say that she's long recognized that improvements are needed in the state's language assistance plans.

For the 2008 elections, Fenumiai detailed several changes that she deemed ''significant improvements'' for Yup'ik voters, including the development of audio CDs that contain information about voter registration and absentee voting, as well as election-specific information. She is also pushing hard to have all recruited poll workers attend language assistance trainings. Ballot measures for August are also being translated into Yup'ik, and a glossary of translated election terms has been created. A language assistance coordinator has also been hired.

Fenumiai said both state funds and Help America Vote Act funding were being used to pay for the new endeavors, which she said totaled about $145,000 to date, which doesn't include the salary of the language assistance coordinator.

''I think anything we can do to provide assistance to voters, so they're able to vote and understand the election process is money well-spent,'' Fenumiai said.

Despite the language assistance upgrades, Mittman said that it remains to be seen whether state and local election officials follow through in accordance with the law. He also presumes that the Yup'ik case might symbolize a wider spread problem, at least in Alaska, that has yet to be fully documented.

''The record of this state in not fulfilling its obligation to Alaska Natives under the Voting Rights Act would lead a reasonable person to believe that there are other limited English proficient Natives who have not been fully informed of their enfranchisement rights,'' Mittman said. He added that both the ACLU and NARF would ''certainly'' want to hear from such groups.