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.
In the lead-up to the trial, both sides asked Gleason to rule whether the 1975 language amendments to the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act required translations into historically unwritten languages, and whether the Reconstruction Era’s 15th Amendment to the Constitution — which declared states couldn’t use race or creed to restrict the right to vote — applied to the case. Both were the relevant law, she ruled.
The state says it has a language program that includes trained, bilingual poll workers and translated ballots. It says it should be judged by whether it is effective, but Gleason ruled that the state attorney general’s office was looking at the wrong law in asserting that standard. The state acknowledged that when it translates materials into a written language like Spanish, it has to provide the same materials as it does in English, but it asserted there were no such requirements for a historically oral language.