ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ The constitutional right to vote requires the state of Alaska to translate all election materials into Native languages for voters lacking English proficiency, a federal judge said.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason still plans to conduct a trial at the end of the month in a voting rights lawsuit brought by several Native villages and elders with limited English skills, the Anchorage Daily News reported (http://is.gd/SwbGaZ ). But she ruled Wednesday that as a matter of law, the state is obligated to match all English materials _ including pamphlets, instructions, registration materials and ballots _ with Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in translations.
The lawsuit alleges the state is violating language provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing election materials in the Native languages. The lawsuit was filed through the Native Americans Rights Fund last year against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and three other Alaska elections officials. Treadwell is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
The state defends its Native languages program as robust, involving bilingual poll workers, outreach to villages and translated ballots.
Both sides had asked the judge to rule on whether 1975 language amendments in voting rights law required translations into historically unwritten languages. They also asked Gleason to rule on whether the 15th Amendment, which declares states cannot use race or creed to restrict the right to vote, applied to the case.
Gleason ruled that both were relevant.
The state has said it has to provide the same materials as it does in English when it translates materials into a written language like Spanish. The state, however, says there were no such requirements to translate materials for languages that are historically oral.
Gleason said that would mean the state would offer less language help to Alaska Natives. She said Congress intended for all Americans to participate in elections.
“It would be inconsistent with that goal to have a lower level of assistance provided to American Indians and Alaska Natives than other minorities,” the judge said.
The U.S. Department of Justice joined the case this week. It said in a Tuesday filing that state elections officials were wrong in their approach to providing ballot help for Alaska Natives with limited English proficiency.
The Alaska attorney general’s office said in reply filed Wednesday that the federal attorneys misunderstood its assertions and were overreaching the voting rights law.