In an important Alaska voting rights case being tried in U.S. District Court this month, the state has asserted it isn’t required by law to translate all election materials into Native languages and that in general its language program is adequate. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason overruled the state, saying the constitutional right to vote requires Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages. The Alaska Federation of Natives has long endeavored to protect Alaskans’ right to vote. While the state has been slow to recognize the challenges facing Alaska Native voters, the federal government – including our Alaska Congressional Delegation and the federal Department of Justice – has been quickening its pace.
We are greatly encouraged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement suggesting a proposal to boost voting access for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The basic idea would be to require jurisdictions that include tribal lands and villages to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government. Associate Attorney General Tony West, in Anchorage this week, said in the Department of Justice’s announcement, “We take this step because voting is a legal right we guarantee to our citizens. We do it because it is right.” AFN’s only caution on this new idea is that we don’t want Alaska to be left out of comprehensive reform legislation on voting rights pending in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski applauded the plan in a written statement. “Through better communication, obstacles to casting a ballot can be identified and addressed.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy also applauded the plan. “I welcome Attorney General Holder’s comments about starting a conversation with sovereign tribes to address the very real obstacles that the American Indian and Alaska Native populations have in casting their vote,” he said in a written statement. “The issue of voting rights is foundational to our democracy, and it is one that requires our commitment and our action.” AFN looks forward to working with both Sens. Murkowski and Mark Begich and enacting legislation this Congress.