By Tom Lukish
From its western banks along the Bering Strait to its eastern border with the Yukon Territory, Alaska encompasses a large terrain colloquially known as “The Last Frontier.” A home for some 735,000, and a vacation destination for many more, America’s northernmost state perhaps likely comprises the only world several Yup’ik- and Gwich’in-speaking villagers have ever known. Indeed, many in Alaska’s southwest region, “still depend upon subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering for food.” For them, and for advocates nationwide of a more expansive Voting Rights Act (VRA), there is tremendous hope for the future. 3,770 miles from the pertinent jurisdiction in last year’s Shelby County v. Holder and nearly fifty years after the initial passing of the VRA, Alaska Natives present a new sort of story.
In certain parts of Alaska, such as those which encompass the Wade Hampton Census Area, American Indians and Alaska Natives amount to approximately 92% of the total population. Perhaps realizing the cultural influence such individuals maintain, organizations like the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) have made efforts to assist natives as they seek increased political efficacy in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
In July of 2013, and with the help of the large law firm Wilson Elser, NARF took action in Alaskan federal court. Republican Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who oversees the state’s Election Division, was among the listed Defendants. In filing Toyukak v. Treadwell, the plaintiffs claimed violations of rights preserved by both the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. NARF alerted the court of their belief that “state officials have failed to provide oral language assistance to citizens whose first language is Yup’ik, the primary language of many Alaska Natives in the Dillingham and Wade Hampton regions.” This is perhaps unsurprising, since Alaska was one of the states, pre-Shelby County, covered by the VRA’s now-debunked Section 4 coverage formula. To provide some perspective, Mike Toyukak of the Manokotak Village has stated a need to “understand what [he’s] voting for.” NARF’s claim supports the notion that oral language assistance would provide natives with such understanding.
As history would indicate, the Voting Rights Act does preserve and promote inclusion and diversity in our democracy. Just as a coverage formula and system for preclearance once brought positive change to the nation, other provisions of the Act have been implemented to enhance political participation such as the more recent but still operational Section 203. Put forth in 1975, Section 203 addresses language barriers and as the Department of Justice (DOJ) describes it, expands voting rights by “target[ing] those language minorities that have suffered a history of exclusion from the political process. . . .” Section 203 requires: “Whenever any State or political subdivision [covered by the section] provides registration or voting notices . . . or information relating to the electoral process . . . it shall provide them in the language of the applicable minority group as well as in the English language.” DOJ is helpful in articulating the Section’s goals, implications, and reach. Its website illustrates that jurisdictions become covered when “there are more than 10,000 or over 5 percent of the total voting age citizens in a single political subdivision . . . who are members of a single minority language group, have depressed literacy rates, and do not speak English very well.”
While roughly 92% of Wade Hampton classifies as American Indian or Alaska Native, the number shrinks to 14.7% when looking at the population statewide. For lawyers like Natalie Landreth and Erin Dougherty, the attorneys who led NARF’s efforts throughout Toyukak v. Treadwell, the case and its result are meant to ensure that this 14.7% is not forgotten. Fortunately for Landreth and Dougherty, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason seemingly shares their sentiment. After reviewing documents submitted by both the plaintiffs and the State of Alaska, Judge Gleason required state officials to “provide written translations of most of the important election materials they give to English-speaking voters,” which includes “candidate statements in the official election pamphlet mailed to every voter in Alaska.” Additionally, Judge Gleason instructed state officials to “increase six-fold the number of hours that bilingual outreach workers are paid to help Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers understand the ballot and their right to vote.” Judge Gleason’s detailed interim remedial order provides a more thorough breakdown of the court’s requirements, which concludes with the instruction that, “On or before November 28, 2014, the [Alaska] Division [of Elections] shall file a comprehensive report to the Court detailing its compliance. . . .”
What Does It All Mean?
As mentioned, for Landreth and Dougherty, the order is an enormous step in the right direction. Landreth has gone so far as to say that “[Judge Gleason] is setting the only enforceable legal standard on this issue,” and that this “helps Hispanics, Asians and especially native-language voters in the Southwest and the Dakotas.” If not legally, such an assertion likely holds true from a practical standpoint. Contemporary societal norms and the nature of the Voting Rights Act make it seem unlikely that we will see anyone drawing a line in the sand (or snow) the way Alaska’s Election Division did in Toyukak v. Treadwell. Indeed, no one has battled a VRA violation claim like this since 1980.
To precisely measure the potential significance of Gleason’s order, let us observe that the aforementioned 14.7% of Alaska’s population amounts to approximately 108,064 individuals. In 2010, the voter turnout in the state was 48.5%. For analytical purposes, let us see that 48.5% of 108,064 is just over 52,411. In 2010, Republican Sean Parnell won the state’s gubernatorial election by a sweeping margin of nearly twenty-two percentage points, indicative of a voter population difference of 54,799. Theoretically speaking, if Alaska Natives had a true understanding of the process and had then chosen to vote overwhelmingly democrat, one need not be a math major to recognize the sheer electoral impact these individuals might have had. While the results might have been the same, Alaska would have been significantly more purple than red, and subsequent state action would likely need to reflect such a shift.
In an article written earlier this year for The New York Times, writer Jeremy W. Peters stated, “Native people tend to pick the person over the party, voting for candidates who seem best equipped to address their unique and complex social problems.” If this is true, perhaps it would be wise for the Republican Party to avoid similar conflicts in the future.