If you think it’s hard to understand ballot measures when they’re written in English, consider the translations into Yup’ik prepared by the Alaska Division of Elections. Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, spent 30 minutes trying to decipher a translated 2010 ballot measure proposing a law to combat corruption. He gave up on the version given to Yup’ik voters by the state and went to the original English to figure it out. “I have spoken Yup’ik my entire life, I teach it, write papers about it, and speak it almost daily. I should be able to review this ballot and understand it with ease. In fact, I had to ask for a copy of the English version to compare and try to discern the meaning of it,” Charles wrote in a report. Charles is expected to be a key witness in the U.S. Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought last July by four Native villages and two western Alaska elders against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, and three members of the Elections Division he supervises. Because it involves elections, the case has been moving quickly for a civil matter and is scheduled for trial June 23 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
Charles, an expert for the Native plaintiffs, said the translation of another question on the 2010 ballot, an initiative on abortion, was even worse. An English reader of reasonable proficiency would have seen that the question asks whether a doctor should be required to notify a parent before performing an abortion on the parent’s minor child.
But in Yup’ik?
“The ballot measure was asking about parental permission to get pregnant, not parental permission to have an abortion,” Charles said. “Anyone who used this sample ballot received different information than English speaking voters and voted on something totally different than other English-reading voters in the rest of the State.”