Native Voting Rights Case Kicks Off

A federal trial is underway to determine whether the State of Alaska does enough to serve voters who speak Native languages.

Toyukuk v. Treadwell was brought by two Alaska Native voters, along with two tribal councils. Natalie Landreth, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, is arguing the case. She says there’s a “huge amount” of voting information available to people who speak English, Spanish, and Tagalog, compared to the amount of materials for speakers of Yup’ik and Gwich’in. Landreth says the disparity amounts to discrimination.

“It’s not an impossible task. You hear that it’s more complicated than the defendants would like it to be, but it’s not impossible. It’s very practical,” says Landreth. “They’re choosing not to do it.”

The state is defending against that charge, arguing that the Division of Elections does want Native voters to be enfranchised but there are unique obstacles to serving some populations in the state. Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar notes there are only 300 speakers of Gwich’in who are capable of doing translating work for the state, and until recently the state had to clear many of its policies with the Federal Department of Justice.

“These aren’t some sort of excuses for not doing a good job,” says Bakalar. “The Division does everything it can with the resources that it has.”

The trial will last for eight days, with each side having four days to present witnesses before District Judge Sharon Gleason. The first witnesses were called by the plaintiffs, and they pointed out situations where voting materials had low readability scores. They also brought up examples of ballot measures being mistranslated, noting that in the case of a 2012 initiative that described managing coastal areas as “playing by the beach.”

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