State settles lawsuit, agrees to offer voter aid in Yup'ik

Kyle Hopkins

The state has settled a lawsuit brought by Yup'ik-speaking elders and tribal councils demanding that the Division of Elections provide ballots and voter assistance in Yup'ik.

Announced by the Attorney General Friday, the agreement calls for Yup'ik language translations of election information to be posted on the state Web site and sent to Bethel-area village councils. The arguments for and against ballot measures -- which can be tough to understand even if you speak English -- will go to villages 30 days before Election Day.

The effort comes in a slice of Western Alaska that's home to the state's largest rural hub city and nearly 30 villages.

The Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in 2007 against the state and the city of Bethel.

Lawyers for the elders argued election officials were violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by failing to provide Yup'ik speaking voters with ballots and other paperwork they needed to understand what they were voting on.

"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.

McCann's statement, included in an announcement of the settlement, was translated from Yup'ik, said senior staff attorney Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund.

"Being a plaintiff is not easy, but when you come together to fix a problem like this, it is worth it," McCann said.

The agreement was approved by a federal judge on Tuesday -- the day the trial was supposed to begin, Landreth said. A Yup'ik interpreter would have been on hand in the courtroom, she said.

The settlement boosts efforts the state has been making for roughly a year-and-a-half to help Yup'ik-speaking voters in the ballot booth, said Assistant Attorney General Sarah Felix.

"They did a tremendous amount of language assistance," Felix said of the Division of Elections' efforts over the past four state-conducted elections.

For example, the state has already been airing Yup'ik-language radio ads announcing election deadlines and notices and hired a full-time Yup'ik speaker, she said.

The Division of Elections has spent more than $310,000 in federal money available under the 2002 Help America Vote Act on language-assistance efforts over the past year, she said.

About two-thirds of the 17,000 people in the Bethel Census area speak a language other than English in their homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many older voters never learned to read or speak English fluently unless they were shipped away to boarding schools in Southeast Alaska as kids, Landreth said.

The original plaintiffs, McCann, Anna Nick of Akiachak, David O. David of Kwigillingok and Nellie Moses of Akiachak, were all in their late 60s or 70s when the case was filed.

"All of our plaintiffs, the four elders, only went to the second-grade because that's all there was," Landreth said.

Early attempts by the state to provide sample ballots in Yup'ik led to confusion, according to an analysis by Marie Meade, an assistant professor of Yup'ik for the University of Alaska Anchorage.

One ballot measure about gambling used the wrong Yup'ik word for gaming, Meade wrote. "This word 'naangualriit' means 'those playing,' as when children are playing with dolls. ... The result is that a person reading this ballot might think there are new regulations governing the use or playing with toys," she said.

Now, a panel of seven experts is working together on translations to avoid errors, according to the settlement..

The agreement also calls for the Division of Elections to provide additional training for election workers and may test bilingual poll workers' Yup'ik and English language abilities. Bilingual workers in Bethel-area villages will be given election information to read over VHF radios in their communities.

The state's settlement applies to state-run elections such as the race for governor or U.S. president.

The city of Bethel oversees local elections, such as the October vote on whether to lift a ban on alcohol sales in the city.

The city agreed in July to provide voters with written, Yup'ik language sample ballots -- as opposed to relying on interpreters -- to make sure people are getting more consistent translations, said city clerk Lori Strickler.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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