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Protecting Alaska Natives' right to vote -- no matter what language they speak -- is critical

Julie Kitka
OPINION: When one Alaskan voter is disenfranchised, we are all disenfranchised, and Alaska’s democracy suffers for it. Pictured: Voters cast their ballots in Barrow during the August 2012 election. File photo. Loren Holmes photo

In an important Alaska voting rights case being tried in U.S. District Court this month, the state has asserted it isn’t required by law to translate all election materials into Native languages and that in general its language program is adequate. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason overruled the state, saying the constitutional right to vote requires Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages.

The Alaska Federation of Natives has long endeavored to protect Alaskans' right to vote. While the state has been slow to recognize the challenges facing Alaska Native voters, the federal government – including our Alaska Congressional Delegation and the federal Department of Justice – has been quickening its pace.

We are greatly encouraged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement suggesting a proposal to boost voting access for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The basic idea would be to require jurisdictions that include tribal lands and villages to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government. Associate Attorney General Tony West, in Anchorage this week, said in the Department of Justice’s announcement, “We take this step because voting is a legal right we guarantee to our citizens. We do it because it is right.” AFN’s only caution on this new idea is that we don’t want Alaska to be left out of comprehensive reform legislation on voting rights pending in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski applauded the plan in a written statement. “Through better communication, obstacles to casting a ballot can be identified and addressed.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy also applauded the plan. “I welcome Attorney General Holder’s comments about starting a conversation with sovereign tribes to address the very real obstacles that the American Indian and Alaska Native populations have in casting their vote,” he said in a written statement. “The issue of voting rights is foundational to our democracy, and it is one that requires our commitment and our action.” AFN looks forward to working with both Sens. Murkowski and Mark Begich and enacting legislation this Congress.

In May, Begich introduced a bill to protect Alaska Native voters from discrimination. The bill, Native Voting Rights Act of 2014 (S. 2399), would require close scrutiny of the closure of polling places and voter registration in Native communities, mandate acceptance by election officials of identification cards issued by federally recognized tribes and Native corporations, and provide increased protections for Native voters who cannot understand complex voting materials written in English. 

Judge Gleason’s preliminary ruling is good for Alaska and entirely appropriate in light of the attorney general’s proposal. It highlights the larger issue of the state’s continuing neglect of a key sector of Alaska’s electorate: Alaska Natives in general, and Native senior citizens in particular, many of whose command of English is insufficient enough to warrant the language assistance program in the first place.

It is as much a policy position as it is a legal position. We can see the state’s dismissive attitude toward some Alaska voters in the language state lawyers used in arguing for an order barring Alaska’s top election official, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, as a witness. According to Richard Mauer’s May 30 Anchorage Daily News story, the state’s lawyers argued that his testimony would be a “waste of time.” “He knows very little about the day-to-day details of the language-assistance program,” the state wrote, adding that "high officials" like Treadwell should generally not be required to testify because they "have greater duties and time constraints than other witnesses."

This is outrageous. The number-one duty of the lieutenant governor is control and supervision of the Division of Elections. AFN is very concerned that the state’s top election official has “limited knowledge of the department’s Native language program,” according to the state’s lawyers. It is the duty of the Division of Elections from top down to work toward fair elections for every Alaska voter in our wonderfully diverse state.

When Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), it intended for all Americans to participate in elections. It is clear from the history of legal complaints and election statistics that state officials -- under both Republican and Democrat administrations -- have generally ignored their responsibilities. Let’s remember that Alaska Natives who vote here are U.S. citizens, Alaska citizens, serving our country with military service in higher numbers per capita than any other minority group. Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which represents the plaintiffs in the case, said the state’s “indifference has contributed to depressed voter participation in the neglected Native communities, including some with turnout 20 to 30 percent lower than turnout in non-Native communities. It is unfortunate that Native voters have had to turn to the federal court to secure their fundamental right to vote.”

To dismiss this responsibility is to dismiss a large part of Alaska’s history and cultural heritage. The Voting Rights Act was designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The act allowed for a mass enfranchisement of racial minorities throughout the country, followed by years of enforcement actions in Indian Country and across the nation.

There is a reason Alaska is one of seven states included in the act's now-repealed coverage section for Section 5, which required that these states receive federal approval, known as "preclearance,” before implementing changes to their election laws. Alaska’s constitution included an English literacy requirement. Alaskans in 1970 voted in a statewide ballot to remove this section. But Alaska in 1975 was added to the preclearance section of the act anyway because Congress thought it was important to include our state.

You may be surprised that this voter restriction was not the first to limit voter access, particularly Native voter access, to the election process. Alaska Natives were officially granted citizenship and the right to vote in 1924. The Alaska Legislature soon after passed a literacy requirement for all new voters. The problem with such literacy tests has always been not in creating a test but who’s doing the testing. Jim Crow laws created unfair tests in many Southern states and in Alaska mainly to discourage certain voters. Alaska’s literacy test was rarely enforced and no records of lawsuits exist. But the law stayed on the books, becoming part of the Article V of the Alaska Constitution.

The history of the suffrage struggles touches my own family. My brother-in-law's grandmother, Laura Anderson-Youngstrom, marched in the streets in Minnesota as a young suffragette. It was 1906. A young wife and mother, Laura joined many other Americans in carrying banners calling for the right to vote for women. Women nationwide did not get the right to vote until 1920.

That the state’s lawyers said the lieutenant governor’s testimony would be a “waste of time” is an insult not only to the plaintiffs in the case, but to all Alaskans.

A democracy is only as strong as the election process, which includes not only the act of voting but the information necessary for a voter to make sound decisions. Fair access to voting and voting information -- and a strong, informed electorate -- is something all Alaskans want. Alaskans cannot accept when one group of Alaskans, however large or small, is marginalized. When one voter is disenfranchised, we are all disenfranchised. And our democracy suffers for it.

Judge Gleason will decide whether the state Division of Elections is in violation of the Voting Rights Act’s language requirements and if so what remedial steps should be taken. AFN strongly believes that the both the state and the federal governments are obligated to protect voters’ rights and their access to the patriotic duty of voting. Our governments should continually take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that.

Building community and a better life for all Alaskans is an important goal for AFN. Voting is a powerful way to help improve the lives of individuals, their families and their communities. Earlier this month, AFN and NAACP co-hosted a community picnic in Mountain View Lions Park. We were joined by many fine organizations, and companies, including Catholic Social Services, Pride Foundation, ANCSA Regional Association, Identity, Sealaska, First Alaskans Institute, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Faces of Hope Community Services, and Native Vote. A number of first time voters registered. It was a great start to the voting season. We hope every eligible Alaskan registers to vote and gets out to vote in the primary and the general election. Let’s work together in every city and village to make that happen.

Julie Kitka is president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.