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Native language speakers win voting rights lawsuit against state

Richard Mauer

A federal judge in Anchorage ruled Wednesday that the state Elections Division violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by failing to provide ballot and candidate information in Native languages to Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in three rural regions of Alaska.

In a big victory for Native rights advocates, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason rejected the state’s assertions that it had done enough in Southwest Alaska and the Interior by providing bilingual poll workers and “outreach” personnel. Gleason said the state’s effort failed to provide “substantially similar” information in Native languages as it does in English, a requirement of the Voting Rights Act since 1975.

While the plaintiffs -- two Yup’ik-speaking elders and four federally recognized village tribes -- had sought to have all election and registration materials made available in Native languages, Gleason focused on the official election pamphlet sent to all residents of Alaska in English. The state didn’t do enough to help voters with limited English proficiency gain access to the information in the pamphlet, she said.

Gleason read her ruling from the bench, citing the urgency of resolving the matter with the general election just two months away. The nine-day, non-jury trial concluded July 3.

She ruled only on claims with a direct effect on the election, and said she would rule later on another: an assertion the state intentionally violated the constitutional rights of Native language speakers on the basis of race or color. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, said those violations were so serious that Gleason should ask the Justice Department to send election observers to Alaska similar to the assistance provided by the U.S. government to Third World countries.

The decision comes at an inopportune time for the Parnell administration and its relations with Native villages. Republican Gov. Sean Parnell is in an election battle in which the No. 2 person on the opposing ticket is a prominent Native leader from Southeast, Byron Mallott, a Democrat. Though Mallott has joined the independent ticket led by Bill Walker, a spokesman for the Democratic Party cited the language case Wednesday in attacking Parnell’s record on Native justice and subsistence issues.

Later in the day, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, one of the defendants in the case and the administration official in charge of elections, issued his own statement expressing disappointment in the ruling but vowing to expand the state’s efforts in providing language assistance.

“In the meantime, Alaska’s Native and non-Native voters need to know that the Division of Elections is committed to ballot access,” Treadwell said in the prepared statement. “We will continue to work with Alaska Native leaders and others to improve, and I view today’s decision as an opportunity to expand our efforts.”

In her ruling, Gleason showed some sympathy for the difficulties faced by the state in providing translations for voting materials into traditional oral languages. She also said the state was improving in some ways, such as its effort to translate the difficult oil-tax referendum into Gwich’in for the recent primary election.

Gleason offered her own suggestions for the state, such as using languages besides English to publicize its language telephone hotline and the availability of interpreters. She also suggested that the readability of voting material could be improved.

But she spoke sharply with one of the state’s attorneys in the courtroom when she asked when the Elections Division would file its own proposed remedies. The lawyer, assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh, replied there wasn’t enough time to change anything, especially with officials preparing for local elections in October.

Gleason indicated that answer was unacceptable.

“If your proposal is you’re unwilling to do anything, I’ll take that under advisement,” Gleason told Paton-Walsh. The judge said it would take only 30 seconds, for instance, to order buttons on the Internet for bilingual poll workers to wear saying “Can I Help?” in Yup’ik.

“If your response is ‘we can do absolutely nothing between now and Nov. 4,’ so be it -- I’ll go forward,” Gleason said.

Paton-Walsh reversed herself and said the state would file its suggestions by Friday.

Outside the courtroom, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Natalie Landreth, said Paton-Walsh’s response was typical of the way the state has responded to requests for language assistance -- there’s never enough time.

“It’s what they’ve been doing for the last 35 years,” Landreth said. She described the victory in the courtroom as “long overdue.”

Correction: Quotes from Judge Sharon Gleason in an earlier version of this article contained minor inconsistencies with the official court transcript. Those quotes have been updated.

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