Sample ballots for this year’s primary and midterm elections will be translated into Sugt’stun for several southcentral and southwestern Alaska communities.
The federal government was required to provide the translated ballots for several Sugpiaq communities after the 2016 census.
“That is determined by a formula that takes into account different variables like, percentage of minority speakers in a group in a location, educational attainment, whether or not they checked ‘you speak English very well or not well’ in the census,” said Alaska’s Elections Language Compliance Manager Indra Arriaga.
She says under the Civil Rights Act, Alaska has to provide language assistance to people with limited English.
The law has been around since 1964. But the state has recently paid closer attention since it was sued twice in the last decade for not providing language assistance to some Alaska Native communities.
Now, the state provides sample ballots in Native languages such as Yup’ik and is trying to expand its services.
“As a result, the different materials in different languages are in different stages,” she said. “So whereas the Yup’ik one, we've got glossaries, we've got PSA’s, we've got recordings, we've got sample ballot phrases, election day phrases. We don't have that robust of an offering yet for all the other ones.”
Arriaga doesn’t know if those recourses have impacted voter turn-out, but The New York Times reported voter turnout increased by 20 percent in Native villages after language assistance was provided on sample ballots.
“Well you know any time you can vote in your language, it's less confusing,” she said. “You don't have to rely on other people necessarily if you can read it. The other thing is it's really empowering.”
Some community members say they are thrilled by the initiative.
“We’re happy, very happy, it makes me happy,” said Sally Ash, who teaches Sugt’stun and is helping to translate ballot language. “It is really great to be able to see our words on something, on a piece of a paper, for our people to be able to say, “Hey, it's in our language too!’ I think it will probably help a lot more than just reading it in English and having someone translate.”
Ash just wishes this could happened sooner. Sample ballots for the primary will be available for residents in Sugpiaq communities in a few weeks and ballots for the midterm will be released this fall.