A partial ruling by a federal judge simultaneously left a group of Alaska Natives celebrating a "major" voting rights victory and sent election workers scrambling.
Toyukuk v. Treadwell was filed in 2013 by a group composed of Yupik-speaking voters and tribal councils against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees elections for the State of Alaska.
At the core of the lawsuit is the belief that people who do not speak English receive less or worse information about elections from the state, something not allowed under the Voting Rights Act.
"If you’re going to provide it to English-speaking voters, you provide it to the Yup’ik-speaking voters," said Natalie Landreth, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, which represents the group of plaintiffs. "That has not happened for nearly 40 years."
Following a nine-day June trial that yielded a mountain of evidence, District Court Judge Sharon Gleason announced Wednesday that she did not have time to write a decision ahead of the Nov. 2 general election but that Election Day provided a sense of urgency that compelled a quick ruling.
Gleason acknowledged that the state faces a difficult task in translating complex ballot initiatives from English into Yup'ik, Gwich'in and other Native languages rooted in an oral rather than written tradition.
But she sided with the group that filed suit.
"The plaintiffs have demonstrated, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the division standard practices and procedures that are in place … are not designed to transmit substantially equivalent information in the applicable minority language," Gleason told the courtroom.
Gleason told assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh, who represents the state in the case, that the defendants must enact a series of improvements before Election Day.
The judge recommended an array of changes: additional training of poll workers, a more visible presence by translators in villages on Election Day, gathering local feedback on ballot language to account for different dialects, and so on. But she asked the defendant and plaintiff, respectively, to work out realistic modifications.
Paton-Walsh told Gleason, in response, that changes were unlikely.
"I don't think we can do anything you've suggested here, given everything that needs to be done," the attorney told the judge.
"If your response is ‘we can do absolutely nothing between now and Nov. 4,’ so be it," Gleason said. "I’ll go forward."
Given a moment to consider that possibility, Paton-Walsh backed off and agreed to have suggestions to the office by close of business Friday.
Later in the day, the lieutenant governor said he believes the state followed the law and that Gleason's expanded reasoning will help guide his successor.
"In this case, the plaintiff sued us before they ever talked to us about this issue, and the clarification of the law by the judge is very important," Treadwell said. "If the law is different than what we thought, that's important that the judge tell us that."
Treadwell said the focus for the state now is to figure out what can be done before Nov. 2: "We will work on ballot translations where that makes sense. We will use electronic touch screen voting where we can have oral people providing that assistance to voters," he said.
While the exacts are still being figured out, Cori Mills, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, also said the state is entirely focused on detailing a proposal for Gleason
"With a little over 60 days left before Election Day, the proposal will focus on what can be done in the limited amount of time remaining," Mills said.
The headache for state workers, though, is a fitting symptom for a longstanding problem in the eyes of the plaintiffs though.
"The scenario is set up so that you find out nothing about the election before it occurs, and the first time you find out what’s on the ballot, about the measures, is when you walk in to vote," said Landreth. "That’s what we were trying to fix. It's 40 years overdue."
Channel 2's Chris Klint contributed to this story.