Lack of Yup'ik election help spurs suit

Lisa Demer

Lawyers for Yup'ik speaking voters say the state had problems translating ballots into Yup'ik. Here's one example, according to the lawyers:

The state's translation for the predator control initiative used the word "takukaq." In one Yup'ik dialect, that means "brown bear" but in a coastal dialect, it means "seal," the lawyers said.

"As a result, voters on the coast (a predominately Yup'ik-speaking area) read a ballot that indicated seals would be shot because they had been consuming too many moose calves and were depleting the population -- a nonsensical prospect," lawyers wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court last week.

The state failed to provide enough translation help for Yup'ik speaking voters last year during three separate elections, violating a court order that it make significant improvements, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund.

The concerns are playing out in U.S. District Court in the case of Nick v. Bethel, a civil suit filed in 2007 to force improvements in elections for Yup'ik speakers with limited or no English ability.

In July, U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess ordered the state to make changes for the August primary election, a regional vote and the Nov. 4 general election. Among other things, the state was supposed to recruit bilingual poll workers or translators in the Bethel census area, provide sample ballots in Yup'ik, create a Yup'ik glossary, check the accuracy of all translated materials with Yup'ik experts, and hire someone fluent in Yup'ik .

While some of that was accomplished, many of the requirements either didn't happen or the results were flawed, said Jason Brandeis, of the ACLU of Alaska.

"That is very disappointing because not only is the state not in compliance, but their lack of assistance affects so many Yup'ik people who just want to be able to understand what they are voting for," Brandeis wrote in an e-mail.

State election officials said they couldn't respond to specific concerns because of the ongoing lawsuit. But generally, the state worked hard to improve the system fast, said Shelly Growden, the state elections systems manager. The state hired a full-time language coordinator who is fluent in Yup'ik. The state made an initial run at a Yup'ik glossary. The state recruited bilingual poll workers and translators and paid them to put out announcements in Yup'ik over VHF radio.

"We don't have our head in the sand. We want to make improvements," Growden said.

Still, the lawyers for Yup'ik speakers say some voting precincts in the Bethel census area had no translator. At least two people actually voted on the sample Yup'ik ballots, which presumably were not counted because they weren't official, Brandeis said.

And there were multiple problems with translations of ballot issues. For instance, a gaming initiative translation used the word for "playing with toys" instead of "games of chance," leading Yup'ik voters to think a special commission would regulate playing with toys.

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