August 24, 2006
For Further Information Contact: Natalie Landreth, (907) 276-0680, Anchorage, Alaska
VOTING RIGHTS ACT REAUTHORIZATION 2006 VOTING RIGHTS 101
BOULDER, CO – This year NARF partnered with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights to encourage Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act (VRA) which was set to expire in 2007. As part of this effort, NARF authored a report the first of its kind on the impact of the VRA in Alaska. NARF was then asked to support this with Congressional testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. We are delighted that the VRA has been renewed with overwhelming support and was signed into law for another 25 years on July 27, 2006. While many people associate the VRA with the African-American population and southern states, the VRA has also had a profound impact on the voting rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Two sections of the VRA critical to Indian Country were up for reauthorization: the minority language provisions and preclearance. The former, which are found in Section 203, mandate that if more than 5% of the voting age population in a certain jurisdiction are members of a single language minority and have limited proficiency in English, then that jurisdiction must provide oral and written assistance in the minority language. (Jurisdictions may also find themselves subject to the minority language provisions under section 4(f)(4) of the VRA if they employed a test or device such as a literacy test in previous elections.) More specifically, this means that everything from registration forms to actual ballots and even the signs posted at the polling place must be in the minority language, in addition to having translators available at every poll. Section 203 essentially provides that in jurisdictions where more than 5% speak a Native language, the elections have to be conducted in English and the Native language. Nationally, more than 400 jurisdictions are covered by Section 203, including most of Alaska. The other critical provision of the VRA, preclearance, provides that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must submit all election law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice for review before that change is implemented. This prevents jurisdictions from enacting laws that would impair or interfere with the right to vote, such as forbidding the use of tribal identification cards or requiring state-issued driver licenses. These two sections form the centerpiece of the VRA.
Alaska was central to NARFs study of the impact of the VRA in Indian Country because many Alaska Natives still speak primarily their Native language. This is particularly true of Central and Siberian Yupik people in the western part of the State and the Inupiat people in the north and northwest. In the Yupik-speaking Bethel area for example, the conservative estimate for those with limited English proficiency is 21%. That means more than one-fifth of the population speaks Yupik instead of English. But the Yupik do not have to learn English to vote -- the VRA requires that the elections learn Yupik! Therefore, it can be said that the VRA is absolutely vital to maintaining the right to vote among non-English speaking Alaska Natives.
However, the fact that the VRA has been reauthorized with these two important provisions does not mean the end of NARFs commitment. NARFs report on the impact of the VRA in Alaska revealed that Section 203 has not been fully implemented in Alaska. Many non-English speaking Alaska Natives who are entitled to oral and written assistance receive little to no help. There are no written materials of any kind in any Native language and voters report only inconsistent oral assistance by people who they claim are not trained translators. As a result, many Alaska Natives report having voted in a way they did not intend. In general, many non-English speaking Alaska Natives, elders in particular, find voting an intimidating and confusing process and some do not vote at all because they simply do not understand. That is a tragedy. The full impact of the VRA can only be realized if it is fully implemented. NARF is committed to monitoring and encouraging compliance with this law in Alaska and around the United States.
The Native American Rights Fund is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to assist Indian tribes, individuals and organizations with legal advice and representation on issues of national significance to Native Americans. NARF is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado with offices in Anchorage, Alaska and Washington, D.C.