Two elderly Yup’ik speakers and two tribal organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against Alaska, saying state election officials have failed to provide language assistance at the polls as required by law. The lawsuit was filed Friday, naming Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, as a defendant, along with his director of elections, Gail Fenumiai. Regional election officials in Fairbanks and Nome were also sued, The Anchorage Daily News reported. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund, says the state is violating the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing ballots and voting instructions for speakers of Yup’ik and its dialect in Hooper Bay, Cup’ik.
The plaintiffs contend that the failure of the state to provide language assistance appears to have suppressed voter turnout among Natives in the region. The state settled a similar lawsuit for the Bethel region in 2010 by agreeing to provide a wide-ranging language assistance program for Yup’ik speakers and agreeing to pay up to $975,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs, also represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund.
Treadwell has cited the state’s language program in the Bethel region as a reason that Justice Department supervision of Alaska under the Voting Rights Act had become irrelevant. That supervision ended in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the supervision formula in the Voting Rights Act in a case brought by an Alabama county.
But now the Native American Rights Fund is arguing that supervision of Alaska should be resumed, at least for Native language issues. NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said in an interview Friday that she’ll ask a federal judge to assume the oversight or order the Justice Department to do so.