Stephanie Woodard
During Election 2014, turnout surged in Alaska Native villages, including Togiak, shown here, in the Bristol Bay region. This was a result of various improvements in voting access, including increased language assistance for speakers of Alaska Native languages. Now, a judge has ordered that the assistance be made permanent.

Historic Voting-Rights Win in Alaska

Stephanie Woodard

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Alaska have jointly announced an agreement that requires the state to provide translation of election materials and ballots into Gwich’in and several Yup’ik dialects. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who presided over the lawsuit that resulted in the settlement, also ordered increased bilingual training for election workers, expanded collaboration with Native language experts and tribal councils, meaningful outreach to voters, and additional help for those with limited English-language proficiency.

Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, who is of Tlingit heritage, called the agreement “historic.” He said it “will strengthen our election process, so that voters can have the opportunity to understand fully all voting information before they vote.”

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act mandates the assistance just won in Alaska. However, some governments, such as Alaska’s in years past, have avoided providing it. It took two major language-assistance lawsuits to achieve the current success, noted plaintiffs’ attorney, James Tucker, of Armstrong Teasdale, in Las Vegas.

“This is a very big deal,” said lead plaintiff Mike Toyukak, who is Yup’ik from Manokotak Village. He thanked the lieutenant governor for facilitating the sweeping changes. (Mallott, who won office in 2014, inherited the lawsuit, which was filed against his predecessor, Mead Treadwell, as Toyukak v. Treadwell; it is now known as Toyukak v. Mallott.)

The expert translations and help are not just practical, said Tucker, and not just a matter of law. “They are a demonstration of respect for Native languages and cultures.”

Interim language-assistance measures put in place for the 2014 election showed what happens when people feel included. Turnout surged in Native villages, and Alaska Native voters were credited with helping elect a Native lieutenant governor, protect the vast Bristol Bay region from mining and increase the state’s minimum wage. Now the measures will be permanent and part of a roll call of breakthroughs in the state, including expanded early voting and vigorous get-out-the-vote campaigns.

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The lawsuit and Judge Gleason’s order are a watershed moment, said NARF attorney Natalie Landreth, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “This is the first fully tried Section 203 case since 1980, so it will provide a strong precedent for other lawsuits.” The newly popular all-mail voting systems, which tend to eliminate or weaken language assistance, are particularly vulnerable, she noted.

Mail-in elections often shift translation duties to relatives, explained Tucker. “Under the law, voters may receive assistance from a person of their choice, but jurisdictions can’t require that families translate.”

Landreth commended Judge Gleason’s requirements for pre-election outreach. “There is justifiably a lot of emphasis on what happens on Election Day. But during the trial, we had an epiphany about the importance of being an informed voter. If you can’t learn about candidates and ballot proposals ahead of time, you walk into the voting booth having to make all those decisions at the last minute and based on limited information.”

According to Tucker, hammering out the agreement took several months because both sides wanted to be sure it complied with the law and accommodated real-world election-administration issues. “For instance, it takes time to translate, print and distribute an election-information pamphlet, so we factored that in.” Another example: data limits on touch-screen voting machines don’t yet allow for as many languages and dialects as paper ballots.

Allan Hayton, representing plaintiff Arctic Village, lauded the agreement: “Diiginjik K’yaa it’ee łyaa chil’ee ts’a’ gwiintł’oo riheeł’ee, aii eenjit jii dehtł’yaa kat gaayii gwiriłtsaii shoo tr’inlii ts’a’ hai’ tr’indhan. We treasure our language and hold it in high respect, so we are happy and grateful for this important victory.”

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