Feds say state election officials wrong on Native language rules

Richard Mauer

A federal judge on Wednesday overruled state election officials and said the constitutional right to vote requires Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages for voters with limited English skills.

Siding with village plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and three other Alaska election officials, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that as a matter of law, the state is obligated to match all English materials -- including pamphlets, instructions, registration materials and ballots -- with Yup'ik, Cup'ik and Gwich'in translations.

Gleason still plans to conduct a trial at the end of the month into whether the state Elections Division, headed by Treadwell, is in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act's language requirements, and if so, what remedial steps should be taken. The lawsuit was brought by the Anchorage office of the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund on behalf of four Native villages in western Alaska and the Interior and two Western Alaska elders with limited English proficiency.

Treadwell is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

In the lead-up to the trial, both sides asked Gleason to rule whether the 1975 language amendments to the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act required translations into historically unwritten languages, and whether the Reconstruction Era's 15th Amendment to the Constitution -- which declared states couldn't use race or creed to restrict the right to vote -- applied to the case. Both were the relevant law, she ruled.

The state says it has a language program that includes trained, bilingual poll workers and translated ballots. It says it should be judged by whether it is effective, but Gleason ruled that the state attorney general's office was looking at the wrong law in asserting that standard. The state acknowledged that when it translates materials into a written language like Spanish, it has to provide the same materials as it does in English, but it asserted there were no such requirements for a historically oral language.

But that would mean the state would offer less language help to Alaska's Natives than it would to Spanish speakers, Gleason said. Congress, in passing the Voting Rights Act, intended for all Americans to participate in elections.

"It would be inconsistent with that goal to have a lower level of assistance provided to American Indians and Alaska Natives than other minorities," Gleason said.

In a filing Tuesday evening, the U.S. Department of Justice joined the case and said state election officials were wrongheaded in their approach to providing ballot help for Alaska Natives with limited English skills.

Attorneys from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said the state's language assistance program for Yup'ik and other Native languages was inadequate by its own admission.

"The Alaska Native voters deserve more, and the law requires more," the Justice Department said.

But in a reply filed Wednesday morning, the Alaska attorney general's office said the federal attorneys misunderstood its assertions and were overreaching the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department filed its "statement of interest" in the case after a hearing last week in which both sides asked Gleason to issue a summary judgment in their favor, foreclosing the scheduled trial. She rejected those motions.

The Justice Department filing cited a transcript of last week's hearing in which the state asserted the law didn't require it to translate all English election materials into Native languages. The Justice Department said the state misread the "plain language" of the law and ignored 30 years of enforcement actions in "Indian Country," primarily in the U.S. Southwest and South Dakota.

"The Defendants cannot claim a wholesale exemption from the obligation to provide all election-related materials in the Native languages," the Justice Department said. "Defendants' obligations and challenges are no different than those required of other jurisdictions in Indian Country."

The Justice Department also disputed an assertion made by the state in April that the lack of a prior enforcement case by the federal government "suggests that the DOJ (Department of Justice) does not share the plaintiffs' view that the Division is in clear violation of 'unequivocal' statutory mandates."

The state is "clearly mistaken" on that score, the Justice Department responded. The Voting Rights Act, acknowledging the limited resources of the Justice Department, allows private parties as well as the federal government to sue.

In its reply to the Justice Department intervention, the state said it was providing Native voters with "the information necessary to be able to participate effectively in the electoral process." It said it was taking many of the same steps that were contained in the enforcement decrees over the years in other counties and states with Native American populations.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

Contact Richard Mauer at or on