JUNEAU -- Residents of Bethel and five Kuskokwim River villages are asking a federal court to order more effective elections assistance for Yup'ik-speaking voters.
The Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed for a preliminary injunction on behalf of the plaintiffs in an Anchorage district court on Monday.
They are asking state and local elections officials to ensure that bilingual staff are available at the polls to assist voters and translate ballots and elections materials into Yup'ik for the August primary.
They say efforts to provide language assistance so far have been lacking.
They say many polling places often have no one available to help Native speakers and very little quality control over the assistance that is provided.
For example, they cite a 2002 ballot measure regarding the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority where references to natural gas were translated as "this gas in the stomach."
"Election officials expect Yup'ik voters to understand translations which are incomprehensible, inaccurate, confusing, and cause them to vote the wrong way," said fund attorney Natalie Landreth in a news release.
The motion asks the court to immediately halt the state from moving forward with its current procedures and take remedial action instead. The request is part of lawsuit filed last June charging state and local elections officials with violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai said the state has tried to have a bilingual poll worker available at each precinct in the past and has had translators on call as a fallback when one wasn't available.
However, voters should see an improvement this year as a result of the state's newly revised minority assistance plan, Fenumiai said. The plan is currently under review by the Department Of Justice.
It includes special training and better materials for bilingual election workers. The state is also working with the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research to develop CDs containing election information translated into several Alaska Native languages and Tagalog that will be distributed to tribal councils.
"We are definitely going full guns at this and hoping that people will recognize a measurable difference. I think the glossary is a big step and bilingual poll worker training is a huge change, and I think they are both good positive steps," said Fenumiai.
Fenumiai said the state was already working on the plan when the lawsuit was filed last year.
Alaska is covered by a special section of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Those provisions apply to areas that meet certain threshold requirements for numbers of residents with limited English proficiency.