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State Elections Division Holds Alaska Native Language Summit

Bill Ferguson exits a voting booth at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, one of two available precincts in Bethel, Alaska on November 8, 2016.
Katie Basile

Alaska elections officials are struggling to put methods in place to translate the state's election ballot into an array of diverse Alaska Native languages. 

The effort to respond to a couple of court settlements has already resulted in materials in seven different Yup’ik dialects and some Athabascan Gwich’in languages. The state, expanding its effort beyond the court order, now includes a couple of Inupiaq languages. This effort is the subject of a conference that is going on this week at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

The law requires written ballot materials in minority languages, but one of the big issues is that many Alaska Native speakers never learned to read their native language. The state has also put in place a system for audio ballots. Indra Arriaga works for the Division of Elections and is heading up the language effort.

“It’s that machine you see over there with headphones,” said Arriaga, ”and it has a paper attachment to it. You hear. The ballot is read to you, and it is loaded with Alaska Native language. And then you pick, and it prints out your paper ballot so you have confirmation of what you voted.”

The problem is that the machines are 20 years old, antique by conventional standards, and can handle only eight different languages, not the more than 20 Native languages in Alaska. The state is looking at options, but another problem looms. If the state goes to a mail ballot, these audio ballots would not be available in any form. The state is looking at a variety of options.

“We know that an all-by-mail system will not work in rural Alaska because of the language assistance, because of the issues with mail," Arriaga said. "So we’re looking at options where perhaps there could be a combination of systems."

First Alaskans Institute President and CEO Liz Medicine-Crow told the conference that the state should be commended for taking a proactive approach.

“Finally we have language panels that are creating glossaries. They are actually trying to put into effect the opportunity to have bilingual people at voting stations so that if they have a question about it, they have somebody they can immediately access. This needs to be the best system in the country,” Medicine-Crow said.

She adds that the language issues facing Alaska Natives require an across-the-board effort, starting with education from the earliest years on.

“Our education system is failing,” Medicine-Crow said. “It’s failing. And we have to do something transformational.”

The problem facing the state’s election system is also the difficult challenge of translating and summarizing ballot initiatives. These ballot measures are often hard to understand, even in English. The language can be confusing and misleading at times. The division’s translators also do not have a glossary to neutrally translate legal language into the various Alaska Native languages so that voters can understand the bills being proposed in the various ballot initiatives.

“We have problems that we don’t have a legal glossary,” Arriaga explains. “That’s something we have to figure out how to do in the future. Our mandate and our priority is election terms.”

Everyone at the conference realized that these issues are not going to be easy or cheap to resolve; it’s expensive to pay translators. But they also know that courts have ruled that ballot information in a language voters understand is a basic right in a democracy. 

Johanna Eurich's vivid broadcast productions have been widely heard on National Public Radio since 1978. She spent her childhood speaking Thai, then learned English as a teenager and was educated at a dance academy, boarding schools and with leading intellectuals at her grandparents' dinner table in Philadelphia.