Federal Court Upholds Voting Rights Of Alaska Natives Who Need Language Assistance

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
July 31, 2008 12:00 am

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NARF And ACLU Victory Protects Yup’ik-Speaking Voters

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ANCHORAGE — Late yesterday, a federal court ordered Alaska’s state and local elections officials to provide effective language assistance to citizens who speak Yup’ik, the primary language of a majority of voters in the Bethel region of Alaska. The victory came in a legal challenge brought by Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four Alaska Natives and four tribal governments.

“This is a huge victory, not only for Yup’ik voters, but for all Alaska Natives who want to participate in the democratic process,” said NARF attorney Natalie Landreth, who is lead co-counsel in the case. “The state of Alaska has recently taken the first step towards complying with its obligations under the law. But as the court recognized, the state’s recent efforts to provide Yup’ik language assistance are ‘relatively new and untested’ over 30 years after Alaska was first required to provide that assistance. Yup’ik voters will remain vigilant to work with the court to make sure the state’s first steps are not its last. Voting is too precious a right to be denied by bureaucratic neglect.”

The landmark ruling protects Yup’ik-speaking voters in the Bethel region of Alaska by requiring that the state provide language assistance, including trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court tracking the state’s efforts. Alaska is required to comply with the order under the penalty of contempt.

In issuing his ruling, U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess concluded that the Yup’ik voters and tribes clearly established that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their language and voter assistance claims under the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Judge Burgess cited evidence of “strikingly similar experiences” of “multiple voters, in different districts and with different poll workers” being denied the opportunity to receive voting assistance. He also found that while the state recently took some steps to address the longstanding lack of language assistance, its “efforts to overhaul the language assistance program did not begin in earnest until after this litigation began.”

“We applaud the court for this important ruling,” said Jason Brandeis, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Alaska. “It is time to turn the page on the discriminatory practices of the past and fully allow Yup’ik voters and other Alaskan Natives the right to be included in the political process. Remedies including outreach, qualified translators, sample ballots and allowing voters to get assistance when they need it will provide these voters with some of the mandated tools they need to participate in the most fundamental act of citizenship.”

Alaska is one of just five states 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 threshold 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 sections 4(f)(4) and 203, were reauthorized by Congress in 2006 for an additional 25 years.

“Since Alaska became covered by the Voting Rights Act over 30 years ago, it has viewed its obligations as optional and nothing more than an administrative inconvenience to be set aside for higher priorities,” said James Tucker, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “This order tells the state, ‘enough is enough.’ Yup’ik voters are entitled to language assistance for every election, not merely when it is convenient for election officials.”

Defendants in the lawsuit include Lt. Governor Sean Parnell, Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, Regional Elections Supervisors Becka Baker and Michelle Speegle and Bethel Municipal Clerk Lori Strickler.

Attorneys for the Alaska Natives are Landreth of NARF, Brandeis of the ACLU of Alaska, Neil Bradley of the national ACLU Voting Rights Project and Tucker of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

The order granting NARF and ACLU’s motion for a preliminary injunction is online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/36220lgl20080730.html

More information about the ACLU’s work on voting rights is available at: www.aclu.org/voting-rights

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