On July 19, 2013, NARF and co-counsel Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Armstrong Teasdale LLP, acting on behalf of two tribal councils and two Alaska Native voters, filed suit in federal court charging state elections officials with ongoing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution. The suit claims state officials have failed to provide oral language assistance to citizens whose first language is Yup’ik, the primary language of many Alaska Natives in the Dillingham and Wade Hampton regions.
Lead plaintiff Mike Toyukak of Manokotak Village explained through a translator that he needed to receive voting information in Yup’ik so “[he] would be able to understand what [he’s] voting for.”
Plaintiff Fred Augustine of the Village of Alakanuk elaborated, saying through a translator, “Sometimes I wonder if my votes count. Poll workers speak to me in English, but I don’t understand. I didn’t understand any of the ballots but I still voted. We go to vote and vote, but we don’t know what to do and how to vote.”
In the complaint, Mr. Toyukak of Manakotak, Mr. Augustine of Alakanuk, the Native Village of Hooper Bay, and the Traditional Village of Togiak asked the court to order state election officials to comply with the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the voting guarantees of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
The relief requested includes implementing procedures in the Dillingham and Wade Hampton areas similar to those secured by Alaska Natives in the Bethel area in the Nick, et al. v. Bethel, et al. litigation, requiring state election officials to obtain approval from the federal court or the Attorney General of the United States for any changes in those procedures, and to appoint federal observers to oversee future elections in the two regions. “Language assistance” requires translating ballots and other election materials and information into Yup’ik and providing trained bilingual staff to register voters and to help voters at the polls through complete, accurate, and uniform translations.
Seven regions of Alaska, including the Dillingham and Wade Hampton regions, are required to provide language assistance for Alaska Natives under Section 203, the language assistance provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 applies to states and localities that meet certain threshold requirements for the numbers of citizens with limited English proficiency. Two additional regions of Alaska have to provide language assistance in non-Native languages.
The voting guarantees of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution prohibit state officials from denying the right to vote on account of race or color, which federal courts have found includes Native voters.
Defendants in the suit included former Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell, current Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, and Regional Elections Supervisors Becka Baker and Michelle Speegle. Trial was held from June 23 to July 3, 2014 and the court rendered an oral decision on September 3, 2014. The Court held that the Defendants had in fact violated Section 203 of the VRA in all the census areas at issue. The Court further found, in detailed findings that will accompany a final order, that the Defendants had improperly relied on what they called “outreach workers” in villages to translate the entire Official Election Pamphlet themselves, even though these workers had never been asked to do so and there was no evidence showing they could do this. The Court found that the end result was an absence of all pre-election information such as candidate statements, ballot measures, pro and con statements for ballot measures and all other information available to English speaking voters before an election. After briefing, the Court ordered broad remedial relief including the written and audio translation of all pre-election materials distributed in English, posting of bilingual translators at all polling places, and also ordering Defendants to report back to the Court on their progress after the November 2014 election, which was submitted shortly before Christmas.
NARF and our plaintiffs spent several months in an extended negotiation with the State of Alaska to settle the case. On September 30, 2015, the Court approved a settlement agreement with the Defendants that that provides broad relief in the form of a comprehensive language assistance program.
To learn more, follow the links below for press on the case:
- Native Groups Sue State Over Voting Practices, Alaska Public Media
- Native Rights Group Sues State Over Elections, Alaska Dispatch News
- The State of Alaska and Alaska Native Voters and Tribal Councils Reach Settlement in Historic Language Assistance Case for Gwich’in and Yup’ik-speaking Voters, Joint Press Release Between State of Alaska and Native American Rights Fund
- Settlement reached in Alaska Native voting rights case, Alaska Dispatch News
- Parties reach settlement in Alaska Native voting rights case, KTUU
- State to provide language assistance to Yup’ik, Gwich’in voters, Alaska Public Media
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