The state of Alaska is proposing several changes in how they deliver voting information to Alaska Natives whose first language is Yup’ik or Gwich’in. The state is offering the changes after a federal judge issued a decision in a voting rights lawsuit last week. U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ordered the state to better help voters who speak Yup’ik and Gwich’in understand their ballots. Elizabeth Bakalar is the lead attorney for the state on the case. She says that the state is focused on three areas: “That voters need better information ahead of the election that language assistance is available, that outreach workers need to be better prepared to provide language assistance voters especially prior to election day and to better address certain dialectical differences. So those are the three areas which the interim remedies we’re proposing are meant to target and certainly any long term remedies would probably target those areas as well.” Bakalar explains, the state is preparing different versions of ballot language to send to tribal councils and outreach workers to reflect different dialects. She says they’re looking for feedback from speakers.
“Send copies of the different the Central Yup’ik ballot to the tribal councils from the Bethel Census area to the Dillingham and Wade Hampton Census areas and prepare different versions of ballot measure language to send to tribal councils and outreach workers and get input form the plaintiffs on potential dialect differences on the dialect differences in the ballot measures.”
Oscar Alexie teaches Central Yup’ik at the UAF Kuskokwim campus in Bethel and has also worked on Yup’ik translations of ballot materials for the state.
He says that most bureaucratic language used to explain ballot measures and other choices on ballots, simply does not exist in Yup’ik. In addition there are several regional dialects of Yup’ik, which lack the specificity needed, making ballot translation next to impossible.
Alexie says the best situation would be to have translators from each community reading the ballot to Yup’ik speaking voters, because Yup’ik was only recently codified in the last generation or so, so most people will understand best, if they hear the translations, rather than read them.