Federal observers flagged issues with Native language support in Alaska’s August election

“I Voted” stickers at the polls in Nome, August 19, 2014.
“I Voted” stickers at the polls in Nome, August 19, 2014. (Photo by Matthew F. Smith/KNOM)

Federal observers found several problems at rural Alaska polling places in the August election that attorneys say could disenfranchise minority voters and constitute violations of the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. Department of Justice observers were sent to several polling locations in the August special U.S. House and primary elections to assess whether the state provided adequate accommodations for Alaska Native voters. The observers were sent as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago that found that Alaska election officials were violating the federal Voting Rights Act in failing to provide language assistance to Alaska Native voters.

Observers found what appeared to be continued violations of the law, including a polling place without bilingual language workers and election officials who lacked training in assisting voters who speak languages other than English.

The federal observers monitored polling locations in jurisdictions that are required to provide language assistance in Yup’ik in the Dillingham and Kusilvak Census Areas.

Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, said in an email that the “the division makes every effort to comply with all of the requirements of the stipulated order in the Toyukak case,” including finding and hiring bilingual election workers, training them, and providing translated election materials.

Fenumiai said the division added a language assistance outreach coordinator to the team “to assist with our community outreach efforts.” She also said ahead of the November election, the division has provided more translated election materials, in addition to print, digital and radio ads in languages other than English.

“It is frequently difficult to recruit bilingual workers, particularly in places where the residents have informed the division that they do not need language assistance. But the division is committed to providing language assistance and it believes it has complied with the stipulated order and will continue to comply with the Voting Rights Act going forward,” Fenumiai wrote, adding that voters can request language assistance directly on the division website.

The settlement agreement was reached in the wake of a 2013 lawsuit filed by the Native Village of Hooper Bay and Traditional Village of Togiak along with two Alaska Native voters, charging state election officials with ongoing violations of the federal Voting Rights Act for failing to provide election materials and assistance in Native languages.

Under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, states must provide language accommodations in jurisdictions where the rate of English proficiency is lower than the national average. In Alaska, the division currently produces election materials in Spanish, Tagalog, six dialects of Yup’ik, Gwich’in, Northern Iñupiaq, Nunivak Cup’ig and Aleut.

The plaintiffs and the state reached a settlement agreement in 2015 that ordered the Division of Elections to provide election materials in Yup’ik and Gwich’in where speakers of those languages make up a high proportion of voters, based on census data. Election officials are also required under the agreement to provide trained bilingual election workers in polling places where those languages are spoken. Under the settlement agreement, Department of Justice observers were routinely sent to observe election operations in predominantly Alaska Native regions of the state.

The settlement order was extended following the 2020 election, after observers found the state continued to violate the requirements set out under the agreement. And in August, observers again found what appeared to be evidence that the state was not in compliance.

At the Anton Johnson Village Community Building in Koliganek, federal observers reported that there was no Yup’ik speaker available to provide language assistance. There, observers asked election officials what they would do if a voter needed language assistance. An election official responded that “they were supposed to call the office but she wasn’t sure what office,” according to the report.

At the Dillingham City Hall polling station, federal observers documented that the lone bilingual poll worker had not completed mandatory language assistance training. The bilingual poll worker also told the federal observers that “the dialect of Yup’ik spoken in Dillingham is the dialect she does not speak.”

Federal observers found that in seven of the eight monitored polling stations, no election officials had completed required training on how to translate the ballot or provide procedural instructions.

Per the court order, the Division of Elections must provide poll worker buttons that say “Can I help?” in Yup’ik or Gwich’in in covered jurisdictions. They also must provide translated posters that identify bilingual poll workers and announce language assistance availability.

The observers reported that the only election materials in Yup’ik at the Dillingham City Hall were “I voted” stickers.

Some monitored polling stations had more translated election materials available. At the Togiak city office, for example, the polling station had signs in Yup’ik including two that said “language assistance is available for the election.” A bilingual poll worker also wore a “Can I help?” button and all four election officials spoke both English and Yup’ik. However, none of the poll workers completed language assistance training.

Poll workers at five of the eight polling locations assisted Yup’ik speaking voters. No Yup’ik speakers required assistance at the other locations, including at the Anton Johnson Village Community Building and Dillingham City Hall.

Michelle Sparck, director of strategic initiatives Get Out the Native Vote, said bilingual poll workers are “key” to building voter confidence, especially among older and disabled populations. However, many longtime bilingual poll workers are retiring or moving from their communities, making it hard to recruit new bilingual poll workers.

“We would like to see translators in every polling station, but it’s just not possible now,” Sparck said.

Margaret Paton-Walsh, who represented the state, cited similar challenges during 2014 court proceedings.

“The issue is not that we don’t care about them because there’s only 300 of them,” Paton-Walsh said of Alaska’s Gwich’in speakers at the time. “The problem is, when there are only 300 of them, there are only so many people who can provide the assistance.”

It remains unclear if the observer reports will lead to any enforcement action against the Division of Elections. An attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, declined to comment on the observer reports.

The Division of Elections is expected to file a report about language assistance in January, Fenumiai said.

Mara Kimmel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said Alaska election officials have long failed to accommodate non-English speakers. Only after a legal settlement in 2010 did the state agree to begin translating election materials to Yup’ik and training bilingual poll workers.

The Alaska ACLU and Native Americans Rights Fund filed a separate lawsuit earlier this year against the Division of Elections over the lack of a ballot curing process, which would allow voters to correct their ballots if election officials identify mistakes that prevent the ballots from being counted. The lawsuit came after 4.5% of ballots were rejected in the June special primary, Alaska’s first by-mail election. Ballots were disproportionately rejected in regions with high numbers of non-English speakers, including where Alaska Natives make up a majority of the population.

Kimmel said the problems in June and in August were both related to the ongoing challenges in accommodating non-English speaking voters.

“We can’t be a functional democracy if not everybody’s voice can be counted in their votes,” Kimmel said. “It’s very, very essential to who we are as Americans and who we are as Alaskans. And it would be a real shame if every time we wanted to exercise the fundamental right we had to sue.”

Anchorage Daily News

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