Thousands of Native Alaskans will be able to vote in their own language for the first time, after a federal judge ruled in September that Alaska had violated the Voting Rights Act by not providing election materials in Yup’ik and Gwich’in, two indigenous languages. The state has until Friday to complete the translations, but translators are struggling to get the ballots ready in time. If they miss the Friday deadline, the state risks being held in contempt.
Judge Sharon Gleason ordered state officials to provide written translations of major election materials that English-speaking voters receive. These materials cover everything from ballots to mailed candidate statements to even the buttons that poll workers wear saying that they are available to help. Previously, Yup’ik speakers only were given information about the date and time of elections and that there would be people to assist with language difficulties; under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, Alaska officials are required to translate ballots and other materials in both Yup’ik and Gwich’in. Generally, Section 203 requires that all election materials, not just ballots, be translated when more than 5 percent of a local population speak a language other than English. In her decision, Gleason said that by putting the responsibility for translation on outreach workers from rural villages government officials failed to give native voters information that was equivalent to what English-speaking voters got, violating the law. Alaska’s Republican lieutenant governor Mead Treadwell said he was “disappointed” with the decision but that the state would work to comply with it.
Alaska was one of the states covered by the key provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last year, as the state historically used English tests to disenfranchise native voters. As recently as 2011, the Department of Justice investigated Alaska because the state was considering eliminating rural voting precincts that would have caused residents, who were mostly native Alaskans, to travel over 70 miles to vote.
Alaska is not the only state to debate the role of English language in elections. Many states have laws on the books making English the official language. Last February, Arizona considered a bill that would ban state agencies from mailing information in languages other than English, which would cut off Spanish speakers in the state from many government services. The proposed bill had an exemption for voting materials.
The “English only” crusade has been popular with Republican candidates, particularly in states with large minority populations. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) even pushed national legislation in 2011 that would repeal Section 203 and allow states to print ballots in English only. Now facing a tough re-election bid, Coffman is learning Spanish and walking back his anti-immigrant record to try to keep his seat in his almost 20 percent Latino district.
Alaska’s race could determine which party controls the Senate. Sen. Mark Begich (D) has made outreach to native Alaskans a large part of his strategy to win re-election; around half of his field staffers are working in rural Native villages. His opponent, Republican nominee Dan Sullivan, has also been reaching out to native voters through stressing his marriage a native Alaskan. Byron Mallot, the lieutenant governor on the gubernatorial ticket supported by Alaska’s Democratic party, is a native Alaskan. Native Alaskans make up over 16 percent of the state’s population over 18.