Some Alaska Native voters say they're not receiving the help they need at the polls, as a lawsuit filed in federal court against the State of Alaska goes to trial this week.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason heard opening statements in a case that pits several villages and two Yup'ik-speaking citizens against the state Division of Elections.

The trial opened with plaintiffs accusing the state of discrimination and suppressing the Alaska Native vote. For its part, the Division of Elections says it's looking forward to proving it does provide the help it's required to.

The Division of Elections is required to provide language assistance to certain groups, including Alaska Natives, under the federal Voting Rights Act -- but four Native villages and two Native elders say the state isn't complying with the VRA in their remote communities.

In response, they're suing the state for failing to provide oral assistance for those with limited English proficiency, as well as access to accurately translated voting materials in Yup'ik and Gwitch'in. The state says it works hard to comply.

“We're looking forward to the trial so that the division witnesses and the poll workers and the outreach workers can actually describe for the court and the public exactly what we do provide in terms of language assistance,” said assistant attorney general Elizabeth Bakalar.

Plaintiffs in the case argue the state is discriminating by choosing what Yup’ik and Gwitch’in speaking voters have access to, a contention with which the state disagrees.

“We vigorously dispute that,” Bakalar said. “In no way do we feel that anything that is happening within the language assistance program is the result of discrimination as a part of the division at all.”
The Division of Elections says it does provide language assistance to the extent that it's reasonably possible, citing difficulties with recruiting translators and access to remote areas.
The plaintiffs say the result is suppressed turnout by Alaska Native voters -- as well as an inability to cast a meaningful ballot if it's not understood.

In addition to opening statements, experts in reading and linguistics took the witness stand Monday.

Calls to a plaintiff’s attorney in this case were not returned Monday evening.