District Judge Sharon Gleason recently ruled in favor of voters in Alaska that are not proficient in English. She said that the constitutional right to vote means that the government of Alaska must translate all the materials to be used for the election into Native languages. This means that all election materials printed in English, such as ballots, registration forms, instructions and pamphlets must be translated into Gwich’in, Cup’ik and Yup’ik. However, the federal judge will still conduct a trial in the voting rights lawsuit that many Native elders and villagers with limited English language skills brought up.
In the lawsuit, it was alleged that the language provisions stated in the federal Voting Rights Act were violated by the State of Alaska because of the state’s failure to provide election materials in local languages. The lawsuit was filed last year through the non-profit organization Native American Rights Fund, with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and three Alaska elections officials as defendants.
Claims by both parties
On the side of the state, it said that their program for Native languages is already strong as they have provided outreach programs and bilingual election workers to the villages and that ballots have been translated.
The two parties have asked the judge to provide a ruling on the following:
- Does language amendments in voting rights law done in 1975 require the translations of materials into historically oral languages?
- Does the 15th amendment apply to the case? This amendment says that any state cannot use creed or race to restrict the right to suffrage.
Both of the rules were relevant, according to the judge’s ruling. The state is saying that it agrees to the requirement to provide materials written in English with matching documents in another written language such as Spanish. However it is claiming that there was no requirement to have materials translated into languages that have been used orally throughout history.
Judge Gleason reasoned that if that was the case, the state then would be offering limited help in the languages of the Native Americans in Alaska. She added that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act so that all Americans can participate in the elections. She clarified that not providing translations to Native languages would be inconsistent with the goal to provide assistance to American Indians as well as Alaska Natives.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had joined the case last Tuesday. They said that the state election officials of Alaska approached the requirement to provide translations of election materials for Alaska natives that are not proficient in English wrongly. The DOJ also pointed out that the state had admitted that their language assistance program for Native languages was already lacking.
With the DOJ taking an interest in the case, statements by both parties are being played in the media, each one claiming that the other side is wrong in the interpretation of the provisions