After hours in the state elections office in Midtown Anchorage last month, two women stared at a computer screen, murmuring words in Yup’ik. They were struggling over the translation for the phrase “risk-adjusted return.” One of the women, Lorina Warren, looked across the table at Indra Arriaga, language assistance compliance manager for the Division of Elections. “Tell me in simple English what this sentence means,” Warren said — an oft-repeated phrase among groups of people working to translate state election materials into seven Yup’ik dialects and the Interior language of Gwich’in by the November election. Nearly a decade after the Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over its failure to provide ballot materials in Yup’ik, the painstaking work of helping Alaska Native voters understand what they’re voting on has become an expansive undertaking, one that involves deciphering complex financial concepts to faxing handwritten notes between Anchorage, Fairbanks and remote villages.
Those involved say it’s challenging but also deeply rewarding. “Lots of work,” said Lorina Warren, a fluent Cup’ik speaker from the village of Chevak who works as a special education teacher at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School and serves on the Yup’ik language panel. She added, with a sigh: “But I love it.”
The state first started translating ballot materials into Yup’ik about a year after the 2007 lawsuit. In 2013, a second suit was filed, asserting that the elections officials had not done enough to expand the reach of the program outside of Bethel.
In a settlement in the second case, announced last September, the state agreed to expand language assistance — including translations and audio aids — with a focus on 29 communities.