Judge rules in Alaska Native voting rights case

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Monday, September 22, 2014 10:50pm
  • News

JUNEAU — A federal judge on Monday ordered the state to take additional steps to provide voting materials to Alaska Native voters with limited English for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ordered the state to distribute translated announcements to be read on radio that include information on early voting, races and initiatives on the November ballot.

The state, among other things, must make available on its website translations of election material in Yup’ik dialects and provide to outreach workers translations of such things as candidate statements, initiative summaries and pro and con statements on the initiatives. The Division of Elections also is to provide translations to the plaintiffs in the case to get their input.

The division is to increase to at least 30 the number of hours which outreach workers may be paid; the state had proposed increasing the number to 30 hours. The plaintiffs, in an earlier filing, said outreach workers in the past were authorized to work five hours.

Buttons for poll workers in the three census areas affected by the case — Dillingham, Wade-Hampton and Yukon-Koyukuk — are to say “Can I help?” translated into Yup’ik or Gwich’in, with posters in those languages and English stating how voters can request help in casting their ballots.

The lawsuit brought by several Native villages alleged the state had failed to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials in Native languages. The state argued it had taken reasonable steps to implement standards for voting materials for non-English speakers.

Gleason had asked the state to weigh in on what changes it believed it could make ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Her order draws from responses from both the state and plaintiffs.

Natalie Landreth, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said a great deal of what the plaintiffs had requested was reflected in the order. She said she was disappointed that the order called for training sessions by teleconference, rather than in-person, saying it would be less effective. But Landreth said Gleason probably had the proximity of the election in mind. The election is six weeks away.

“The court is very much intent on making sure that there’s equal access to the information on the ballot, and that was the core of the case and we’re pretty happy,” Landreth said.

Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said by email that the state “is committed to doing everything it can to implement the court’s order and provide robust language assistance. With the clear guidance from the court, we look forward to providing the additional assistance outlined by Judge Gleason to the best of our ability to enhance the State’s existing language assistance program.”

The ruling does not resolve the case. The steps outlined in the order would apply to the upcoming election, but Landreth noted that Gleason has yet to issue a permanent ruling or to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim that the state’s actions violated their constitutional rights.

Landreth said a constitutional finding for the plaintiffs’ could open the door to allowing for the appointment of federal election observers.

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