Alaska Natives and ACLU Sue Over Voting Rights Violations in Bethel

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
June 11, 2007 12:00 am

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ANCHORAGE — The Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, acting on behalf of four Bethel-area Alaska Natives, filed a federal lawsuit 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, who is lead counsel 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.”

ACLU of Alaska staff attorney Jason Brandeis added, “Our Constitution says everyone in our democracy has a right to vote. 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, David O. David of Kwigillingok, 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. Specifically, the ACLU and NARF are seeking to ensure that people who need assistance to vote are entitled to receive it from someone of their own choosing, and that election officials provide bilingual staff to help voters at the polls and translate ballots and other election materials into Yup’ik.

“Translations are absolutely crucial for these Alaska Natives,” said 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, like the elderly or the infirm, are barred from relying on a person of their own choice.”

The ACLU’s Brandeis added that the Voting Rights Act continues to be a successful tool in 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 is covered in its entirety by the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Those provisions, sections 4(f)4 and 203, 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 Voting Rights Act was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 for an additional 25 years.

Defendants in today’s lawsuit 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.

Today’s complaint is online at:

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