WASHINGTON — Federal observers documented repeated issues with Alaska Native language support during the Nov. 8 general election, months after flagging concerns with election protocols in August.
During the August special U.S. House and primary elections, the Department of Justice sent federal observers to some predominantly Alaska Native polling stations to assess language accommodations for Yup’ik speakers. Reports identified what appeared to be violations of the law at some polling locations that are required to provide language assistance.
The Justice Department again deployed federal observers during the Nov. 8 general election to six jurisdictions where accommodations for Yup’ik speakers are required. Reports showed lingering problems, including poll workers who did not receive mandatory language assistance training and a lack of translated election materials.
At the Togiak City Office, for example, all but one poll worker present during the November general election spoke both English and Yup’ik. However, a federal observer report indicated that none of the poll workers received mandatory language assistance training addressing how to translate the contents of the ballot and provide procedural instructions.
According to the report, a poll worker explained that “they did not get training for minority language assistance because the state employee was not a Yup’ik speaker and the poll workers ended up teaching the employee about the Yup’ik language.”
A court order details specific instructions for the Alaska Division of Elections, including providing poll worker buttons that say “Can I help?” in Yup’ik or Gwich’in and translated posters that identify bilingual poll workers and announce language assistance availability at covered polling locations.
Federal observers documented that no one wore the button in Togiak and that the city office lacked mandatory translated signs during the November election.
Only two of the six observed polling locations put up any signs in Yup’ik during the November election, according to the reports.
At many of the observed polling locations, voters did not require any assistance in Yup’ik. Of the six polling jurisdictions observed on Nov. 8, reports show that voters at only two of the locations required any minority language assistance.
But states must provide language accommodations in jurisdictions where the rate of English proficiency is lower than the national average to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The Alaska Division of Elections provides voting materials in Spanish, Tagalog, six dialects of Yup’ik, Gwich’in, Northern Iñupiaq, Nunivak Cup’ig and Aleut.
Four Alaska Native tribal governments and two Alaska Native voters in 2013 filed a lawsuit saying that Alaska election officials violated the Voting Rights Act by not providing language accommodations for Indigenous voters.
The lawsuit — Toyukak v. Mallott — resulted in the 2015 settlement agreement that obliges the Division of Elections to produce election materials in Yup’ik and Gwich’in where speakers make up a high proportion of voters in the Dillingham, Kusilvak and Yukon-Koyukuk census areas. The Division of Elections must also provide trained bilingual election workers in covered jurisdictions, among other detailed requirements.
Since the 2015 court order, the Justice Department has routinely sent federal observers to file reports on voter language accommodations in covered jurisdictions.
Tiffany Montemayor, a spokeswoman for the division, said the division is reviewing the federal observer reports and “makes every effort to comply” with the Voting Rights Act and Toyukak order, but noted that the agency has encountered challenges recruiting bilingual poll workers.
“It is frequently difficult to recruit bilingual workers, particularly in places where the residents have informed the division that they do not need language assistance. But the division is committed to providing language assistance and it believes it has complied with the stipulated order and will continue to comply with the Voting Rights Act going forward,” Montemayor said in a statement.
Montemayor added the division has expanded language assistance by providing more translated materials like mailers, advertisements and election pamphlets. She said the division plans to release a report on language assistance in January.
Mara Kimmel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said the ACLU is closely tracking language accessibility at the polls. Though she acknowledged that the Division of Elections faces challenges complying with the Toyukak order, she believes Alaska election officials should look to the recommendations outlined in a 2019 report from the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“It’s really difficult to completely solve it because of all the geographic issues that we have,” Kimmel said. “Alaska is a tough place to do anything, but we have had really smart people thinking about this for a really, really long time, and it’s just a matter of following that roadmap.”
Federal observer reports dating back to 2016 show that election officials have long struggled to comply with the Toyukak order.
The Alaska Advisory Committee report recommended that the Department of Justice “vigorously enforce” the Voting Rights Act in the state and that the Alaska congressional delegation and state legislature seek funding to support the state’s language assistance efforts.
In some jurisdictions, federal observers found that steps were taken to improve compliance between the August and November elections. In August, the Dillingham City Hall’s only translated election materials were “I voted” stickers. During the November election, poll workers hung a Yup’ik sample ballot and a bilingual poll worker wore a translate “Can I help?” button.
But the federal observers again found that the lone bilingual election worker at the Dillingham City Hall had not received training on how to translate the ballot or provide procedural instructions ahead of the August or November elections.
“According to the bilingual poll official,” the report said, “the only translation training she received was the Yup’ik translated-ballot, that she received in the mail.”
Kimmel, of the ACLU, said as the Division of Elections transitions to a new director and a new lieutenant governor, Nancy Dahlstrom, she hopes they commit to improving language accommodations.
“My hope is that the Division of Elections really redoubles its effort to build capacity, staff capacity, within that organization to make sure that language access is a priority,” Kimmel said. “I’m always hopeful.”