Settlement in Yup’ik language voter assistance case reached

Staff reports
2/28/10

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Alaska Attorney General’s Office recently joined the Native American Rights Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Northern Justice Project, four Alaska Native elders and four tribal governments in announcing a settlement of litigation in Nick, et al. v. Bethel, et al. According to the settlement, the state of Alaska will make enhancements to language assistance for Yup’ik-speaking voters available at elections in the Bethel area.

The resolution of the case, originally filed in June 2007 on behalf of Alaska Native elders Anna Nick, Billy McCann, Arthur Nelson and David O. David and the tribal governments of Kasigluk, Kwigillingok, Tuluksak and Tuntutuliak, was welcomed by all parties involved.

“We are committed to equality under the law and fair voting practices and effective access to the voting booth for all Alaskans,” said Alaska Attorney General Daniel Sullivan. “We will vigorously implement the terms of this settlement.”

The settlement recognizes improvements to language-assistance protocols implemented by the state during the 2008 and 2009 elections, while providing for enhancements designed to ensure that limited-English-proficient voters receive effective assistance.

“We are extremely pleased the state of Alaska will provide Yup’ik-speaking voters in the Bethel area with the tools they need to fully participate in the political process,” said Natalie Landreth of NARF. “That is what this case was all about – equal access to the polls.”

“Our right to vote is one of the most important that we as Americans possess,” said Alaska Lieutenant Governor Craig Campbell, who oversees the Division of Elections. “Here in Alaska, we want all our citizens to exercise that right, regardless of where they live or the language they speak. We are pleased to have come together to ensure that this case is a win-win for Yup’ik-speaking voters and the state of Alaska.”

“Every American deserves an equal voice in the political process,” said Laughlin McDonald, ACLU Voting Rights Project director. “The Constitution protects all Alaskans’ right to vote regardless of what language they speak.”

Key protocols for the Division of Elections include:

  • Training bilingual poll workers to provide language assistance to voters;
  • Coordinating language assistance through a bilingual staff person with a toll-free number;
  • Relying on Yup’ik language experts to translate election materials, including information on ballot measures, candidates, absentee and special-needs voting and voter registration;
  • Preparation of a Yup’ik-English glossary of election terms and phrases to guide bilingual poll workers providing language assistance;
  • Providing sample ballots in Yup’ik;
  • Generating pre-election publicity in Yup’ik through radio ads, television programs and public service announcements, including announcements over VHF radios in villages that do not receive regular radio broadcasts; and
  • Undertaking outreach to the villages in the census area.

“I have said all along that all we wanted was to be able to understand what we are voting for. Now that will happen, and I am very, very happy,” said Billy McCann, a plaintiff in the case. “Being a plaintiff is not easy, but when you come together to fix a problem like this, it is worth it.”

The settlement agreement in the case can be found online.

State of Alaska attorneys who worked on the case are Gilman Dana S. Burke, Sarah J. Felix, Margaret A. Paton-Walsh and Michael Barnhill.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are Natalie Landreth of NARF, Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, James J. Davis Jr. of Northern Justice Project, Dr. James T. Tucker, and attorneys from the ACLU of Alaska.

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