NARF Executive Director John Echohawk, NARF Attorney Nathalie Landreth & ACLU Attorney Jason Brandeis announce lawsuit at press conference.

July 11, 2007
ANCHORAGE — The Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, acting on behalf of three Bethel-area Alaska Natives, filed suit in federal court today charging state and local elections officials with ongoing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act. The groups charge that state and local officials have denied voter assistance and failed to provide oral language assistance and voting materials to citizens who primarily speak Yup’ik, the first language of many Alaska Natives in the Bethel region.

“Alaska Natives are American citizens and they want to participate in our democratic institutions,” said NARF attorney Natalie Landreth, the lead attorney in the case. “Under the Voting Rights Act, state and local elections officials have an obligation to provide oral language assistance in Yup’ik and ballots and other voting materials translated into Yup’ik – an obligation with which they have never complied.”

“Our Constitution says everyone in our democracy has a right to vote,” said Jason Brandeis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Alaska. “But that right is meaningless if certain groups are unable to cast their ballots accurately regardless of how well-informed they are about the issues of the day.”

In the complaint, filed today in federal district court in Anchorage, Anna Nick and Nellie Moses of Akiachak, Alaska, and Billy McCann of Bethel asked the court to order state and local election officials to comply with the voter assistance and language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act and to appoint federal observers to oversee future elections in the Bethel area. Voter assistance in this case would mean that people who need assistance to vote are entitled to receive it – even in the voting booth – from someone of their own choosing. Language assistance in this case would mean translating ballots and other election materials into Yup’ik and providing bilingual staff to help register voters and to help voters at the polls.

“Translations are absolutely crucial for these Alaska Natives,” said NARF’s Landreth. “Especially today, when it seems there are so many complicated initiatives and referenda and advisory votes – understanding the nuance of a ballot question is integral to knowing which way to cast your vote. The right to vote is an empty promise if those who need help – the elderly, the infirm – are barred from relying on a person of their own choice.”

Brandeis added that the Voting Rights Act continues to be a successful tool to making the American election system fairer for all Americans. “In San Diego County, California, registration among Hispanics and Filipinos rose by 20 percent and Vietnamese registrations increased by 40 percent after a suit initiated by the Department of Justice. In New York City, language assistance has helped more than 100,000 Asian-Americans to vote,” Brandeis said. “The numbers may not be as large in Bethel – but language assistance will be just as important to each Alaska Native as it was to each and every one of those 100,000 New Yorkers.”

Alaska is one of just five states that are covered in its entirety by sections 4(f)4 and 203, the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Those provisions apply to areas that meet certain threshhold requirements for numbers of citizens with limited English proficiency. Section 208 has nationwide applicability and gives “any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write” a right to receive “assistance by a person of the voter’s choice”. The temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act, including the language assistance provisions, were just reauthorized by Congress in 2006 for an additional 25 years.

Defendants in the suit filed today include Lt. Governor Sean Parnell, Division of Elections Director Whitney Brewster, Regional Elections Supervisor Becka Baker, and Bethel Municipal Clerk Sandra Modigh. The defendants will have an opportunity to respond to the complaint before any further proceedings are scheduled.

Attorneys for the Alaska Natives are Landreth, Brandeis and Neil Bradley of the national ACLU Voting Rights Project.