Parties reach settlement in Alaska Native voting-rights case

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A settlement has been reached between the state and Alaska Native plaintiffs who sued in federal court over the translation of voting materials for voters with limited English proficiency.

The proposed settlement filed Tuesday calls for the Alaska lieutenant governor's office to hire a full-time employee to administer language assistance. Another significant provision in the agreement calls for the official state election pamphlet to include translations, plaintiffs' attorney Natalie Landreth with the Native American Rights Funds said Thursday.

It took the two sides about nine months to work out a settlement, she said.

Landreth read a brief letter from one of the plaintiffs, Mike Toyukak of the village of Manokotak, thanking officials for working on resolving the case.

"This is really a big deal for us, and we're very happy that those who did not understand before will now be able to understand the voting ballots," Landreth quoted Toyukak as writing.

Landreth gave particular praise to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who took office Dec. 1, saying he was key to resolving the matter.

"The lieutenant governor, in particular, inherited a very difficult issue as soon as he walked into office," she said at a media briefing.

Mallott, who oversees elections, said implementing the changes will be difficult, but his office is fully committed to doing so.

Under the agreement, increased language assistance will be provided for three census areas. Also, the official election pamphlet will include information in Gwich'in and up to six Yup'ik dialects.

Mallott said the agreement will lead to stronger election procedures. He said it will allow the state to be responsive to the language needs of any Alaskan needing help and will "allow every voter the opportunity to have their voting information completely understood and allow them to make the most informed decisions as they vote possible."

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason is expected to enter a final agreement and order within the next two weeks, assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar said. The proposed settlement calls for the agreement to be effective through Dec. 31, 2020.

The lawsuit brought by village tribal organizations and elders in 2013 alleged the state failed to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials in Native languages. The state argued it had taken reasonable steps to implement standards for voting materials for non-English speakers.

In a September ruling that did not resolve the case, Gleason ordered the state to take additional steps to provide voting materials to Native voters with limited English skills for the general election last November. Later last year, Gleason asked the two sides to see if they could reach a settlement.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, announced she is co-sponsoring a senate bill to improve provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were found to be unconstitutional in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act, among other things, would require that voting materials be translated into written Native languages.

"The question of whether Alaska Natives have fair access to the voting booth has been litigated multiple times over the past several years," Murkowski said in a statement. "Impediments to voting in many of our rural communities because of distance and language need to be addressed, and my hope is that this legislation will resolve these issues. Every Alaskan deserves a meaningful chance to vote."


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