The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Alaska have jointly announced an agreement that requires the state to provide translation of election materials and ballots into Gwich’in and several Yup’ik dialects. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason, who presided over the lawsuit that resulted in the settlement, also ordered increased bilingual training for election workers, expanded collaboration with Native language experts and tribal councils, meaningful outreach to voters, and additional help for those with limited English-language proficiency. Alaska Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, who is of Tlingit heritage, called the agreement “historic.” He said it “will strengthen our election process, so that voters can have the opportunity to understand fully all voting information before they vote.”
The State of Alaska and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) announced a settlement Thursday of a lawsuit claiming the State failed to provide translations of voting materials in Gwich’in or Yup’ik. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) mandates that “Any registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots,” must be provided in minority languages when five percent of the population speaks limited English. Mike Toyukak of Manakotak, Fred Augustine of Alakanuk, the Native Village of Hooper Bay, the Traditional Village of Togiak, the Arctic Village Council, and the Village of Venetie Council filed suit in 2013. Last September, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that by failing to translate the Official Election Pamphlet into Gwich’in and Yup’ik, the State violates Section 203.
A settlement has been reached between the state and Alaska Native plaintiffs who sued in federal court over the translation of voting materials for voters with limited English proficiency. The proposed settlement filed Tuesday calls for the Alaska lieutenant governor’s office to hire a full-time employee to administer language assistance. Another significant provision in the agreement calls for the official state election pamphlet to include translations, plaintiffs’ attorney Natalie Landreth with the Native American Rights Funds said Thursday. It took the two sides about nine months to work out a settlement, she said. Landreth read a brief letter from one of the plaintiffs, Mike Toyukak of the village of Manokotak, thanking officials for working on resolving the case. “This is really a big deal for us, and we’re very happy that those who did not understand before will now be able to understand the voting ballots,” Landreth quoted Toyukak as writing.
The state’s Elections Division has issued petition booklets for an initiative that aims to make applications for Permanent Fund dividends double as voter registration forms, clearing the way for signature gathering to begin. It has set an Aug. 22 deadline for the petition booklets to be submitted. The petition sponsors have received training from state elections officials on how to comply with state signature gathering rules since the July certification of the measure by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. The initiative sponsors will now have about a year to collect 28,545 valid signatures, according to elections officials, a task made more complicated by a requirement that minimum numbers of signatures must come from 30 of the state’s 40 House of Representatives districts.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott has certified a ballot petition that would link Alaska Permanent Fund dividend applications with voter registrations, which initiative sponsors say could add tens of thousands of Alaskans to voter rolls. But Mallott’s Elections Division is also warning it would cost nearly $1 million to implement and another $300,000 a year to manage. One of the initiative’s sponsors, Tim Kacillas of Anchorage, said despite the upfront cost, there will be ongoing benefits to the state of having more people registered and voting. “It’s originally $500,000 for initial system setup; that’s where the bulk of the money goes,” he said. “I think the people of Alaska will think it’s worthwhile for that price,” he said.
A veteran election official resigned abruptly on Friday at Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s request. The Walker-Mallott administration was Gail Fenumiai’s third as head of the state Division of Elections. Claire Richardson is special assistant to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. She says they accepted Fenumiai’s resignation on Friday. “There’s nothing personal in the request. The lieutenant governor would like to move in some new directions with the Division of Elections and it was felt that it was time for different leadership.” Fenumiai has been director of elections since 2008, and has 10 years of earlier experience in the division. She didn’t return calls for comment.