Victory for Yup’ik speakers

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CHESAPEAKE, Va. – A federal court judge in Anchorage has ordered that state elections officials provide “effective” language assistance for Yup’ik-speaking citizens in the upcoming Aug. 26 election.

The judge’s order, given July 30, resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska on behalf of several Alaska Natives and tribal governments.

Though the Alaska Division of Elections has provided limited language assistance to Alaska Natives, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess ordered the state to provide a number of measures, most specifically pre-election publicity and sample ballots, both in Yup’ik.

“The evidence of past shortcomings justifies the issuance of injunctive relief to ensure that Yup’ik-speaking voters have the means to fully participate in the upcoming state-run elections,” he wrote.

According to Burgess’ order, evidence presented in court by NARF and the ACLU showed that some Alaska Native elders were not allowed to have anyone help them with their ballots because they were told citizens needed to keep their votes private and/or there needed to be at least 50 feet between people at the polls and individual voters in the voting booths.

“This evidence primarily consists of affidavits and deposition testimony showing that some poll workers in the Bethel census area do not understand that blind, disabled or illiterate voters have the right to receive assistance from a ‘helper’ of their choosing,” Burgess wrote.

As part of the injunctive relief, Burgess ordered the state to complete mandatory training of Alaska poll workers, hire fluent Yup’ik-speaking language assistance coordinators, recruit bilingual poll workers or translators, provide sample ballots written in Yup’ik, provide pre-election publicity in Yup’ik, assure translation accuracy, provide a Yup’ik glossary of election terms, and submit both a pre-election and post-election progress report.

NARF in 2005 had been asked to assess potential problems for Native Alaska voters at the polls once the Voting Rights Act was up for renewal.

“We began to study how many speakers of each language there was and what type of assistance they were receiving at elections,” said Natalie Landreth, Chickasaw, a NARF staff attorney in Alaska. “We discovered that Alaska was doing almost nothing to comply with the minority language provision of the Voting Rights Act” of 1965. The provision for minority languages was adopted by Congress in 1975.

Landreth said from her research, she learned that the state’s program involved having a bilingual person at each precinct.

“But we found out that this wasn’t necessarily the case,” she said. “A lot of precincts had Yup’ik translators who couldn’t speak English. Even where they had fully bilingual translators, they had nothing written in Yup’ik.”

To determine how successful the oral translations were, NARF had the translators translate ballot measures onto an audio tape. Then, NARF transferred the translations to English, word for word, so it could hear how the translation turned out.

“What we were looking for was what the Yup’ik speaker was hearing, so we could hear how that translation had changed,” Landreth said. “That’s the most important piece of evidence in the case. The translations were almost completely incomprehensible.”

The Voting Rights Act, she said, requires that non-English speakers receive a standard, uniform and accurate translation. However, at each precinct, the Yup’ik speakers didn’t receive standard translations.

Though state Division of Elections officials had agreed to look into the problems at polls, they postponed addressing the problems during the past two elections.

The court order requires the state to complete improvements it had already planned as well as adds one substantive and one procedural requirement, said Gail Fenumiai, Alaska Division of Elections director. The substantive requirement is providing a sample ballot written in Yup’ik for the polling places, and the procedural requirement includes the pre- and post-election reports, the first having been filed Aug. 11, she said.

“The division feels the court order is good for the state,” Fenumiai said. “The Division of Elections was implementing some improvements in the language assistance area, and many of these were what the court listed that we must complete.”

Alaska Natives make up 19 percent of the Alaska population, and of this percentage, 10,000 speak Yup’ik with 4,000 – 6,000 Yup’ik speakers not speaking English, Landreth said.

Among statewide voters, Yup’ik speakers’ voter turnout is 20 points below the statewide average, she said; and although the state offered an elections complaint line, it had no translator operating the line.

“We’re sorry we had to move to the courts. Given the state’s history, we’re gratified by the court’s decision,” said Jeff Mittman, executive director of the Alaska ACLU office. “The goal is obvious: full and total participation by all members of the state of Alaska, no matter what language they speak. If you’re a citizen of Alaska, you have a right to participate in the elections. There’s been a practice of excluding non-English speakers.”

Although the judge has provided an injunctive relief for the upcoming elections, he said the case is ongoing, and the courts will continue to monitor the next elections to see if the state complies with the Voting Rights Act.

“At some point, the courts will make a decision as to what type of program needs to be put into place to assure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.”