Yup’ik voters give Alaska ballot translation mixed reviews

Voters at the Lower Kuskokwim School District choosing primary election ballots on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014. Some voters had to ask for assistance understanding the ballot translation.(Photo by Daysha Eaton/KYUK)

Voters at the Lower Kuskokwim School District choosing primary election ballots on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014. (Photo by Daysha Eaton/KYUK)

Alaska Native voters in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of Western Alaska gave the Yup’ik language primary ballot translations mixed reviews.

All eight of the Yup’ik voters that KYUK talked with said they needed help understanding what they were voting on.

Elder Jacob Nelson is originally from the coastal village of Kwigilingok. He moved to Bethel in the 1970s and he speaks mostly Yup’ik, and very little English. He says, leading up to Alaska’s primary election, he heard some information on the radio in his language about an oil tax referendum.

“I only ever heard about the ballot initiative on radio, not from anyone else.”

Alaska’s primary ballot asked voters to weigh in on whether to repeal oil tax changes made by the state legislature last year, among other things.

The Primary was held on the heels of a trial, where Attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund, argued the state of Alaska was not doing enough to help Yup’ik voters understand the issues in their language. The state division of elections argues they’re doing enough. Critics say the translations are full of jargon and legalese that’s difficult if not impossible for mainly Yup’ik speaking voters to make sense of.

Like many elders in the area, Nelson says he couldn’t understand the Yup’ik ballot because it’s written in a modern style that he’s not used to. He had someone working at the polls explain the issues to him, in spoken Yup’ik, and marked an English ballot. He said he’s glad there is some effort, but there could be more.

“This will be good for the people if people could understand what they are voting for and if we understand it the way we speak.”

It’s estimated there are around 10-thousand Yup’ik speaking voters in Alaska. The language is the second most spoken language in the state behind English, also the second most spoken Native American language in the country behind Navajo. A decision on the lawsuit against the state of Alaska regarding language translations is expected soon.