Ahead of tomorrow’s primary elections in Alaska, every voter in the state should have received a pamphlet that introduces the candidates, describes ballot issues and explains how to vote. The pamphlets are available in Spanish and Tagalog — but not Yup’ik, a language spoken by Alaska Natives, even though it is among the most commonly spoken languages in the state. At least 10,000 people speak Yup’ik, according to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It’s the second-most-spoken Native language in the U.S., after Navajo. Many speakers live in the community of Bethel or surrounding smaller rural villages in southwestern Alaska.
When Yup’ik-only speakers get to the voting booth, they may request a Yup’ik sample ballot, which can also be read to them. Though the translation may be technically correct, it may be in an unfamiliar dialect or so dense and convoluted that, some Alaska Native leaders say, older Natives in particular will feel they are voting blindly. The ballot they mark will be written in English. Lawyers for the Native American Rights Fund say Alaska election officials need to do better.
They brought a suit against three election officials and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell on behalf of two Native elders and four Alaska Native villages last summer, saying that a lack of properly translated voter information and ballots violates the language provisions of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and disenfranchises Native voters.