By: Jakob Stalnaker
Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain covered jurisdictions to provide language assistance and bilingual election materials to language minority groups. The determinations are made every five years by the Census Bureau. The criteria for coverage include if either (1) more than five percent of voting age population or (2) 10,000 of the voting age citizens are members of a single-language minority group and do not “speak or adequately understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process.” There is an additional provision, covering jurisdictions with more than five percent of American Indian or Alaska Native population residing within an American Indian Area, meeting the same criteria if those citizens do not “speak or understand English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process” and the rate of individuals in that population who have not completed the fifth grade is higher than the national rate.
The State of Alaska has numerous covered areas – they are recognized as boroughs and census areas. The Census Bureau works with Native Alaskan tribes to determine the Alaska Native Village Statistical Area (ANVSA). Language minority groups covered in parts of Alaska include Filipino, Hispanic, Yup’ik, Inupiat, Aleut, and Alaskan Athabascan (also known as Gwich’in).
The native language minority groups have presented additional challenges for implementation. Languages such as Yup’ik and Gwich’in have regional dialects within covered areas that require additional outreach and translation. Furthermore, many of the native languages are traditionally oral, and not written. These practical implementation challenges resulted in litigation between the state of Alaska and Native American defendants in 2013. The lawsuit was settled in 2015, and the settlement agreement governs much of the state’s voter language assistance outreach with Native American Tribes. This agreement will remain in place through 2020.
The settlement agreement provides numerous remedies for the Native language dialect issues. The State now provides language assistance for all information in the Official Election Pamphlet. Voters are entitled to help in the specific dialect of their village. The State now provides a toll-free number to determine the identity of bilingual workers in voter’s village. Translated materials can be found on the Alaska Division of Elections website.
There are other specific dialect-based solutions for Yup’ik and Gwich’in. The state uses Translation Panels of language speaking individuals to accommodate regional dialects and provide language assistance materials. Specifically, the Yup’ik Translation Panel is required to provide five different dialects: Bristol Bay Yup’ik, Central Yup’ik, Hooper Bay/Chevak Yup’ik, Norton Sound Yup’ik, and Yukon Yup’ik. Additionally, tribal councils in some areas can request materials in the Nunivak Yup’ik dialect. Furthermore, Native Alaskan tribal councils can request these specific dialects most comprehensible in their villages.
The combination of geography, diverse Native Alaskan populations, and sparse population areas presents implementation challenges for voter language assistance. A hard-fought solution has been reached, first through litigation, and then through cooperation. The solutions are intended to provide accurate, comprehensible translations with the input of the voter language minority group and ensure any voter who wishes to participate in Alaskan election can do so regardless of any language barrier.