A federal judge in Anchorage ruled Wednesday morning that the state elections division violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by failing to provide ballot and candidate information in Native languages to Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in three rural regions of Alaska. In a big victory for Native rights advocates, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason rejected the state’s assertions that it had done enough in Southwest Alaska and the Interior by providing bilingual poll workers and “outreach” personnel. Gleason said the state’s effort failed to provide “substantially similar” information in Native languages as it does in English. While the plaintiffs — two Yup’ik-speaking elders and four federally recognized village tribes — had sought to have all election materials made available in Native languages, Gleason focused on the official election pamphlet sent to all residents of Alaska in English. The state didn’t do enough to help voters with limited English proficiency gain access to the information in the pamphlet, she said.
Gleason read her ruling from the bench, citing the urgency of resolving the matter with the general election just two months away.
She only ruled on claims with a direct effect on the election, and said she would rule later on another: that the state intentionally violated the constitutional rights of Native language speakers over the years. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund, said those violations were so serious that Gleason should ask the Justice Department to send election observers to Alaska like the government does to Third World countries.