Census Bureau adds areas, languages to be translated for Alaska elections

Yup’ik and English ”I Voted” stickers from Bethel’s municipal election. Photo courtesy of Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK.
Yup’ik and English ”I Voted” stickers from Bethel’s municipal election. Photo courtesy of Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK.

More people who speak Alaska Native languages but who have limited English proficiency will receive translated sample ballots and other election material. That’s due to changes the U.S. Census Bureau announced on Monday.

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The Census Bureau expanded the number of areas and languages eligible for election material translation.

Indra Arriaga, who manages language assistance compliance for the state Division of Elections, said it’s important to ensure that people receive translated sample ballots and election outreach public service announcements in minority languages.

“Anytime you have an increased number of people at the polls deciding things for themselves, it’s a benefit,” Arriaga said. “And that is the mandate of the division: to make sure that any Alaskan who is eligible to vote can vote.”

In 1975, Congress found that people who speak some minority languages had been effectively excluded from participating in the electoral process. It amended the Voting Rights Act to ensure that election materials are provided in languages other than English.

The Census Bureau periodically changes the list of local areas and languages that are covered.

On Monday, it expanded the areas where Yupik translations will be available to include Aleutians East, Bristol Bay, Kenai, Kodiak Island and Lake and Peninsula boroughs. In addition, Aleutians West census area must receive Unungam Tunuu language assistance. Southeast Fairbanks and Valdez-Cordova census areas must receive services in Athabascan languages. And Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area must have Inupiaq language translation available.

Arriaga said the division has to do additional work to arrange for translations. She notes that the census data isn’t always precise about several factors: “The number of speakers within the minority group, the educational attainment, and then whether or not folks check the box on the census that says, ‘Do you speak English very well?’ Which in and of itself is kind of funny, because the question is in English.”

The Census Bureau designates languages for translation based on its estimates for speakers who have limited English proficiency.

Many of the areas with the largest number of Alaska Native language speakers were already covered. The federal government mandates that the state provide translations of written materials. The state also provides bilingual election workers in some precincts.

John Active has translated for Yupik voters in Bethel. He’s encouraged by the expansion in the areas where Yupik translation is available. He said some voters need the help.

“Most of them are elders, and they’re only Yupik speakers,” Active said. “They don’t speak English. They don’t understand English.”

The Division of Elections has work to do to ensure that translations will be available in the newly added languages. One of its first steps will be to reach out to local governments and tribes to determine which languages are used in each area. For example, the Census Bureau said Athabascan translations are needed in Southeast Fairbanks, Valdez and Cordova, but doesn’t say which Athabascan languages must be translated.

Allan Hayton directs the Doyon Foundation’s Language Revitalization Program in Fairbanks. He noted that there are nine different Athabascan languages in the area his foundation serves.

Hayton was encouraged by the expanded designations.

“All of our languages currently are endangered,” Hayton said. “For those that are voting, to be informed of what they’re voting on, who they’re voting for, this type of language assistance is invaluable.”

Arriaga said the timing of the announcement is good for the division, since it gives officials more than a year to prepare for the next statewide election, the primaries in 2018.

She said the cost for the added translations must be determined. The federal government covers some of the costs, but the state also pays some.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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