The state of Alaska says it will do a better job offering language assistance to its native population following a federal court ruling this week.
The ruling marks the end of a legal campaign that began a year ago when the state was sued by four tribes and two native voters for failing to provide sufficient ballot language assistance. After a nine-day trial earlier this summer, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason on Wednesday issued her ruling, asking the state to submit a proposal by Friday for changes that could be implemented before the November election.
“This case boils down to one issue,” Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which filed the lawsuit with two national law firms, said in a statement following the ruling. “English speakers receive a 100-page Official Election Pamphlet before every election and Yup’ik speaking voters have been receiving three things: the date of the election, the time of the election, and a notice that language assistance will be available at the poll. That’s it. That is a very clear violation of the law, and it has to change, now.”
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said in a statement that he was “disappointed” with the ruling, but would “work expeditiously” to comply with it.
“In the meantime, Alaska’s native and non-native voters need to know that the Division of Elections is committed to ballot access,” he said. “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.”
As it stands, the state provides translators and bilingual outreach and poll workers in Yup’ik and Gwich’in, two native languages. But the assistance was limited to a particular dialect of Yup’ik, which was of little use to voters in some regions who spoke different dialects, NARF argues in the statement.
“The State has been informed about the dialectical differences many times over the years, but has taken no action,” the group said.
As Alaska Dispatch News points out, the decision’s timing is unfortunate for Gov. Sean Parnell (R) who is up for reelection this fall. The lieutenant governor candidate on the opposing ticket is prominent Native leader Byron Mallott (D).