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Alaska Natives sue over election translations

Posted: July 21, 2013 - 12:12am

ANCHORAGE — Two elderly Yup’ik speakers and two tribal organizations have filed a federal lawsuit against Alaska, saying state election officials have failed to provide language assistance at the polls as required by law.

The lawsuit was filed Friday, naming Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state’s top election official, as a defendant, along with his director of elections, Gail Fenumiai. Regional election officials in Fairbanks and Nome were also sued, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund, says the state is violating the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing ballots and voting instructions for speakers of Yup’ik and its dialect in Hooper Bay, Cup’ik.

The plaintiffs contend that the failure of the state to provide language assistance appears to have suppressed voter turnout among Natives in the region.

The state settled a similar lawsuit for the Bethel
region in 2010 by agreeing to provide a wide-ranging language assistance program for Yup’ik speakers and agreeing to pay up to $975,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs, also represented by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund.

Treadwell has cited the state’s language program in the Bethel region as a reason that Justice Department supervision of Alaska under the Voting Rights Act had become irrelevant. That supervision ended in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the supervision formula in the Voting Rights Act in a case brought by an Alabama county.

But now the Native American Rights Fund is arguing that supervision of Alaska should be resumed, at least for Native language issues. NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said in an interview Friday that she’ll ask a federal judge to assume the oversight or order the Justice Department to do so.

The state has only partially resolved the language difficulties of Yup’ik speakers in the Bethel region, Landreth said, and has not extended those services to thousands of Yup’ik speakers in the villages around Dillingham and the Wade Hampton census region northwest of Bethel, where Hooper Bay is located.

The civil rights lawsuit comes at an embarrassing moment for Treadwell and Fenumiai, who are hosting conventions of their national organizations through the weekend in Anchorage. Treadwell didn’t respond to a message left on his cellphone. Fenumiai said she couldn’t comment until she had a chance to study the lawsuit.

Landreth said it was not her intention to show up Treadwell and Fenumiai among their national peers.

Landreth said the plaintiffs wanted the lawsuit filed by summer to allow enough time for it to be resolved by the 2014 election.

The lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Mike Toyukuk of Manokotak, in the Dillingham region, and Fred Augustine of Alakanuk, in the Wade Hampton region. Landreth said both are elders in their 70s who speak Yup’ik as their first language. Toyukuk got as far as the eighth grade in public school, while Augustine “has not completed any grade level of schooling,” the lawsuit said. Toyukuk has limited English proficiency while Augustine would be considered illiterate in English, the lawsuit said.

Both are registered Alaska voters, though the lawsuit said they are unable to “participate meaningfully in the election process” because of the failure of the state to provide bilingual language materials.

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