- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Trial is scheduled for next month in a case alleging failure by the state to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Alaska Native languages.

The lawsuit was brought by several Native villages and elders last year against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and members of the Divisions of Elections, which Treadwell oversees. The Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Gwich’in speakers in the lawsuit allege the state is violating language provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act by not providing election materials in their Native languages.

The state, in court filings, defends its Native languages program as robust, involving outreach to villages, bilingual poll workers and translated ballots. While the program may not be perfect, the law doesn’t demand perfection, only that “all reasonable steps” be taken to assure voters who speak limited English are “effectively informed of, and participate effectively in, voting-connected activities,” the state contends.

Natalie Landreth, lead attorney in the case with the Native American Rights Fund, said if the state provides written material in English, the law requires a translated Yup’ik version, too.

“It doesn’t mean you can try pretty hard,” she said, “you have to actually do it.”

Walkie Charles, an assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who is expected to be a key witness for the plaintiffs, wrote in a report that he has spoken Yup’ik all his life and should be able to understand a ballot written in that language with ease. But he said he had to ask for an English version of a 2010 ballot measure he reviewed to compare the two and try to discern the meaning, the Anchorage Daily News reported (https://bit.ly/QESTMn ).

Charles said the translation of another 2010 ballot question, related to parental notification for abortions sought by minors, “was asking about parental permission to get pregnant, not parental permission to have an abortion. Anyone who used this sample ballot received different information than English speaking voters and voted on something totally different than other English-reading voters in the rest of the State.”

In a court filing, he described the state’s efforts as word-for-word translations that didn’t make sense, describing it as “Yup’ik legalese or ‘Yup’ified’ English.”

“This kind of language just does not really exist in Yup’ik, by which I mean people do not speak or write Yup’ik this way,” he said.

Yup’ik became a written language in the 19th century. Academics recast the writing method in the 1960s, changing spellings, word formations and letter usage. But Charles said many Yup’ik speakers can read it, provided the text isn’t overly complex.

The state said it created a Yup’ik Translation Panel in 2009 to convert election material, including the 2010 ballots, into Yup’ik. It said the plaintiffs weren’t raising real issues but were instead “pointing to isolated, irregular instances where the Division’s Yup’ik language assistance program has fallen short.”

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Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.adn.com

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