Civil Rights Commission Reviews Alaska Native Voting Rights

Aug 25, 2017

Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

The State of Alaska is under a court order to provide the translation of election materials into Native languages to Yup'ik communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Bristol Bay region, and Gwich’in country in the Interior. On Thursday, the Alaska Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Anchorage to review the state’s work and to look at the implications of a plan to shift the state to voting by mail.

The state unveiled an impressive amount of work accomplished since the court order was handed over to the Walker Administration. Indra Arriaga is leading the language work at the state Division of Elections. She described the work done by a panel of Yup’ik speakers, some of them elders, to develop translations in six Yup’ik dialects. But at Thursday’s hearing, she heard from election workers in Koliganek that the Yup’ik Ballot they got was unusable by local elders who use another dialect that election workers did not know about. During a break, Arriaga was meeting with Koliganek residents to set up a process to add that dialect to the state election translation system.

That is just one example of the kind of changes the state is making after the 2013 court decision that found Alaska in violation of the Voting Rights Act because it did not provide election materials in Alaska Native languages.

Arriaga says that 2016 was the first year the official Election Pamphlet was published in a language other than English. Now they need to find a better way to get it to voters. They sent the pamphlet to tribal offices, but they don’t know what happened to it after that. One panelist suggested distributing voter information at rural post offices.

“It’s very straight forward,” Arriaga acknowledged. "Part of it is that it was our first year doing it, and we were so focused on the translation part that we didn’t know what to expect. So now we know.”

The Elections Division under Lieutenant Governor Byron Malott says that it is using the court order as a minimal goal as it works to expand its language services to communities covered by the Voting Rights Act. There is a list of Alaska communities in need of these services that goes beyond the communities covered in the 2014 court order. For example: enough Yup’iks have moved to the Kenai Peninsula that the law now requires that community provide election materials in Yup’ik.

“We’re working with them,” says Arriaga. “So they have their own mandate to meet, and we have our own. What we can do for them is give them everything we have. Like, they don’t have to do a glossary; they can use our glossary. They don’t have to have sample ballot phrases done, we already have them. So that will save them money and time.”

The Walker administration garnered praise for the work that they are doing to make elections more accessible to rural Alaska Natives. Nicole Borromeo, Executive Vice President and General Counsel with the Alaska Federation of Natives, recounted the struggle led by Native corporations and non-profits in the last year of the Parnell administration to expand early voting in rural Alaska. The prior administration told AFN that the state already had a program in place in 30 rural communities. When they asked which communities, the state refused to tell them, leaving them with 11 days to jump through bureaucratic hoops to add more early voting stations to Alaska’s 200-some villages.

“AFN was the command center,” Borromeo said. “Yes, my office was the command center. At the end of 11 days we had 128 villages providing early voting.”

Borromeo says that the result was increased voter turnout in rural Alaska in 2014. “And a lot more Alaska Native and rural Alaska residents voting early and absentee.”

That was the same election that brought the Walker administration into office. Now, instead of being shut out by the state, the new administration has invited AFN to be part its effort to redesign the state's voting system.

“It’s night and day really,” says Borromeo. “It really is a brand new leadership, and leadership from the top down that is committed to democracy and that is not afraid to admit that there is a problem.”

These were among the issues explored in a hearing of the Alaska Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission is conducting a national review of voting rights and the hearing in Alaska is one of many being held throughout the country. The Commission is concerned about the impact of plans to shift the state to a voting-by-mail system. 

Josie Bahnke, head of the Alaska Division of Elections, says that the state is looking at delivering ballots by mail, but keeping an election official in the community to help locals vote. Some national experts addressing the commission suggested that voting by mail might make it easier for Alaska Natives and others to get language assistance because local election officials will have more time for them.

Bahnke says that the state has to make changes in the election process because the Accu-Vote system used in Alaska is quickly becoming obsolete, and replacement parts are getting hard to find when the machines break down.

“We need to decide. Are we going to purchase all new precinct based voting equipment for 441 precincts, or are we going to look at alternative ballot delivery systems.”

Bahnke says that the state will not have a new system in place by the 2018 election. She says that it will take years to put a new system in place.