Two elderly Yup'ik speakers and two tribal organizations from Southwest Alaska filed a federal lawsuit Friday against state election officials, accusing them of failing to provide language assistance at the polls as required by federal law.
The lawsuit named Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state's top election official, as a defendant, along with his director of elections, Gail Fenumiai. Regional election officials in Fairbanks and Nome were also sued.
The lawsuit, filed U.S. District Court by the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund, said the state is violating the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing ballots and voting instructions for speakers of Yup'ik and its dialect in Hooper Bay, Cup'ik. The plaintiffs contend that the failure of the state to provide language assistance appears to have suppressed voter turnout among Natives in the region.
The state settled a similar lawsuit for the Bethel region in 2010 by agreeing to provide a wide-ranging language assistance program for Yup'ik speakers and agreeing to pay up to $975,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs, also represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund.
Treadwell has cited the state's language program in the Bethel region as a reason that Justice Department supervision of Alaska under the Voting Rights Act had become irrelevant. That supervision ended in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the supervision formula in the Voting Rights Act in a case brought by an Alabama county.
But now the Native American Rights Fund is arguing that supervision of Alaska should be resumed, at least for Native language issues. NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said in an interview Friday that she'll ask a federal judge to assume the oversight or order the Justice Department to do so.
The state has only partially resolved the language difficulties of Yup'ik speakers in the Bethel region, Landreth said, and has not extended those services to thousands of Yup'ik speakers in the villages around Dillingham and the Wade Hampton census region northwest of Bethel, where Hooper Bay is located.
The civil rights lawsuit comes at an embarrassing moment for Treadwell and Fenumiai, who are hosting conventions of their national organizations through the weekend in Anchorage. Treadwell didn't respond to a message left on his cellphone. Fenumiai said she couldn't comment until she had a chance to study the lawsuit.
Landreth said it was not her intention to show up Treadwell and Fenumiai among their national peers.
"I can assure you it is an incredible coincidence," she said. "This was filed today because I was traveling this week." She said she was unaware of the conventions of the National Association of Secretaries of State, meeting at the Dena'ina Convention Center, and the related National Association of State Election Directors at the Hotel Captain Cook.
Landreth said the plaintiffs wanted the lawsuit filed by summer to allow enough time for it to be resolved by the 2014 election.
The lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Mike Toyukuk of Manokotak in the Dillingham region and Fred Augustine of Alakanuk, in the Wade Hampton region. Landreth said both were elders in their 70s who spoke Yup'ik as their first language. Toyukuk got as far as the eighth grade in public school, while Augustine "has not completed any grade level of schooling," the lawsuit said. Toyukuk has limited English proficiency while Augustine would be considered illiterate in English, the lawsuit said.
Both are registered Alaska voters, though the lawsuit said they are unable to "participate meaningfully in the election process" because of the failure of the state to provide bilingual language materials.
The Traditional Village of Togiak and the Native Village of Hooper Bay are also named plaintiffs, suing on behalf of their Yup'ik and Cup'ik speakers.
Landreth said the lawsuit is not just concerned with elders. Middle-age villagers, who grew up before the landmark Molly Hootch case brought state-funded high school education throughout rural Alaska starting in the mid-1970s, also need help with ballots, she said. The lawsuit said the Molly Hootch high schools were not fully in place until the late 1980s, and that education in those schools remained deficient.
The lawsuit said the Census Bureau has found that more than 18 percent of the residents in the Dillingham region are Yup'ik speakers with limited proficiency in English; of those, 32 percent are illiterate in English -- 27 percent higher than the national illiteracy rate. The Wade Hampton region is only slightly more literate in English, the lawsuit said.
In Alakanuk, the turnout of registered voters in the 2012 election was 12 percent below the state turnout. In Hooper Bay, it was 16 percent below the state average, the lawsuit said.
The spread between the state average and the villages gets even greater when village adults who are not registered are counted among those who failed to turn out for the election: 25 percent below the state turnout in Alakanuk, 36 percent below in Hooper Bay, the lawsuit said.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER