A federal judge on Wednesday overruled state election officials and said the constitutional right to vote requires Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages for voters with limited English skills. Siding with village plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and three other Alaska election officials, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that as a matter of law, the state is obligated to match all English materials — including pamphlets, instructions, registration materials and ballots — with Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in translations. Gleason still plans to conduct a trial at the end of the month into whether the state Elections Division, headed by Treadwell, is in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act’s language requirements, and if so, what remedial steps should be taken. The lawsuit was brought by the Anchorage office of the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund on behalf of four Native villages in western Alaska and the Interior and two Western Alaska elders with limited English proficiency. Treadwell is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Articles about voting issues in Alaska.
This year’s October election could see more Kenai Peninsula Borough residents casting votes from their kitchen tables. An ordinance requiring borough elections be held by mail is up for introduction at Tuesday’s assembly meeting. Assembly member Bill Smith sponsored the ordinance, which proposes that instating vote-by-mail precincts borough-wide would be more efficient, convenient, save money and could increase voter turn out. “We’re hoping that we’ll get some good results if we go to vote by mail and make it easier for people and have better voter turn out,” Smith said.
Trial is scheduled for next month in a case alleging failure by the state to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Alaska Native languages. The lawsuit was brought by several Native villages and elders last year against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and members of the Divisions of Elections, which Treadwell oversees. The Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in the lawsuit allege the state is violating language provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing election materials in their Native languages. The state, in court filings, defends its Native languages program as robust, involving outreach to villages, bilingual poll workers and translated ballots. While the program may not be perfect, the law doesn’t demand perfection, only that “all reasonable steps” be taken to assure voters who speak limited English are “effectively informed of, and participate effectively in, voting-connected activities,” the state contends.
If you think it’s hard to understand ballot measures when they’re written in English, consider the translations into Yup’ik prepared by the Alaska Division of Elections. Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent 30 minutes trying to decipher a translated 2010 ballot measure proposing a law to combat corruption. He gave up on the version given to Yup’ik voters by the state and went to the original English to figure it out. “I have spoken Yup’ik my entire life, I teach it, write papers about it, and speak it almost daily. I should be able to review this ballot and understand it with ease. In fact, I had to ask for a copy of the English version to compare and try to discern the meaning of it,” Charles wrote in a report. Charles is expected to be a key witness in the U.S. Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought last July by four Native villages and two western Alaska elders against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, and three members of the Elections Division he supervises. Because it involves elections, the case has been moving quickly for a civil matter and is scheduled for trial June 23 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to change the date of the regular municipal election from April to November starting in 2017. Assemblyman Chris Birch, who introduced the measure, said that moving the city’s elections would boost voter turnout, citing historical data that recent city races have drawn 20 to 35 percent of voters, while there has been a 50 to 60 percent turnout for recent state races held in the fall. The ordinance passed in a six to four split, with Assembly members Tim Steele, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman and Dick Traini opposing the change. Patrick Flynn was absent from the vote. Mayor Dan Sullivan has said he supports the switch. While some Assembly members offered other solutions to amp up voter turnout, like switching to mail-in votes or connecting voting to Permanent Fund Dividends, all who commented stressed the need to bring more voters to the polls.
Alaska’s largest Native organization is challenging a Southeast group to lead the regional campaign to regain federal voting-rights protections. The Alaska Federation of Natives is already campaigning to restore voting protections struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Speaking at a Native Issues Forum in Juneau, President Julie Kitka asked for regional help. “You have the history in our Native community, helping leading us to getting us to the right to vote,” she said. “We need the full weight of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is pushing his Democratic colleagues to strengthen the protections for minorities in their proposed update to the Voting Rights Act. Begich said the bill introduced in the Senate by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) does not do enough for minority voters, especially native populations in Alaska. Begich expressed concern that Alaska would not have to clear voting procedure changes with the federal government under the bill. A transparency provision that requires notice of voting changes is little consolation, he said. “This is cold comfort considering that the burden is entirely on the voter to find out about such changes,” he said in a letter to Leahy.
A new version of Anchorage Election law, or Title 28, will be before the Assembly at their next meeting. Officials began reviewing the law after problems with an election in 2012. The rewrite comes after polling places ran out of ballots in 2012, even though the turnout was expected to be high and extra ballots had been printed, but not quickly distributed to polling sites. The result was long delays or citizens being turned away. Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser says the clerk’s office worked closely with the election commission along with the department of law for about a year to streamline the voting process.
The Alaska Republican primary ballot next year will be a tale of two Dan Sullivans. Former state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, a first-time candidate, announced a challenge last month to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, the better-known of the two, is running for lieutenant governor. The presence of more than one Dan Sullivan is causing some confusion in polling on the two races, but it may not necessarily have negative repercussions for either candidate in the Aug. 26 primaries. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of advertising in this inexpensive state over the next nine months, any lingering confusion could conceivably provide the Senate candidate a few extra points of support. “From a strategy point of view, I think it’s to both parties’ interests — because both parties benefit from the other party’s advertising — to not dispel it until the primary is over,” said Marc Hellenthal, a veteran Republican pollster in the state whose client is the Anchorage mayor.
A state court judge accepted Alaska’s latest redistricting plan Monday, saying the newly redrawn political boundaries meet constitutional standards. Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy also found the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decisions regarding truncation of certain Senate seats due to changes in the makeup of those districts pass constitutional muster. He said the record does not support any inference that the standard adopted by the board for what constitutes a substantial change in a district was chosen to protect Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, a concern that had been raised among the plaintiffs. Senators generally stand for re-election every four years, but terms for some members can be truncated if a new redistricting plan results in substantially different districts for them.