VOTING RIGHTS ACT: Lawyers for elders, tribal councils say current translation practices are insufficient.

Re-published courtesy of Anchorage Daily News

By LISA DEMER, Published: June 12th, 2008

The state of Alaska was in federal court in Anchorage on Wednesday, battling demands that it provide ballots and other election materials in Yup’ik as well as English to residents of the Bethel area.

Lawyers from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who represent four Yup’ik elders and four tribal councils in Western Alaska say the need for precise written translations is clear. They are suing the state and the city of Bethel.

But lawyers for Bethel and the state say Yup’ik is not covered in that way by the federal Voting Rights Act. Poll workers in the area already help non-English speakers adequately, they say.

As evidence that current practices are not good enough, lawyers for the Yup’ik speakers asked a couple of poll workers to translate the language of a 2002 ballot initiative to create a gas pipeline development authority. The results were incomprehensible, Natalie Landreth, a lawyer in Anchorage with the Native American Rights Fund, told the judge.

“I would be careful to add that we are in no way criticizing the translators — they are obviously talented people who have been asked to perform an impossible task, namely to translate a college level ballot into Yup’ik on the fly with no training, no glossary and no model ballot,” Landreth wrote in a follow-up e-mail.

In the end, the case known as Nick v. Bethel may boil down to whether Yup’ik is a historically unwritten language. The state argues that would make it exempt from requirements for written translations.

NARF & ACLU lawyers for the elders and the tribal groups say the two governments are violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by failing to provide ballots and other materials in Yup’ik to voters who don’t speak English well or at all.

Voters struggle especially to understand ballot measures that are often too complicated even for people who grew up speaking English. But other information needs to be translated too, such as voting instructions. As it is, people who speak mainly Yup’ik may not vote, because they are afraid of voting the wrong way, their lawyers say.

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