This morning, as the sun rises behind dramatic snowy mountains and glistens on the water of Togiak Bay, voters from an Alaska Native town of about 1,000 are heading for the polls. Life-changing ballot measures, increased voting access, improved language assistance and a sense that Native voters have newfound clout are converging to make Election 2014 a big one in Togiak, Alaska.
City council member Andrew Franklin said the community was particularly troubled about two ballot measures. One concerns keeping a large mining operation out of nearby Bristol Bay, the world’s largest sockeye-salmon fishery. The fishery is a huge local employer and the linchpin of the area’s hunting and gathering lifeways. “We’re really afraid of losing the salmon, along with moose, caribou and other game,” said Franklin. “Everywhere mines have gone in, they’ve made a mess, and that would hurt a lot of people.” Another measure pertains to the legalization of marijuana, which villagers fear will mean an increase in the availability of hard drugs.
“This is a very serious election,” said Franklin.
Simultaneously, Alaska Natives’ voting access has suddenly increased. About 200 villages have early-voting sites this year, most for the first time. Though official figures are not yet available, turnout appears high. Togiak’s absentee voting official Andrea Logusak ran out of ballots twice during Alaska’s two-week early-voting period. “People kept coming and coming,” she said.
Improved language assistance—thanks to the recent, successful Toyukak v. Treadwell voting-rights lawsuit—makes it easier for those who are not proficient in English to vote. “One elder had trouble with the English ballot, but when I gave him a Yup’ik one, he had no more questions and was done voting in a few minutes,” Logusak said.
“People here have felt disenfranchised, but now they don’t,” said Corey Cejka. She is a village field organizer for Democrat Mark Begich, who is trying to hold on to his Senate seat. If he wins, it’ll likely be due to backing from Alaska Natives, largely because of his support for their subsistence hunting and fishing rights. This year, the Native vote is a crucial swing vote in several races, including for the Senate in South Dakota and for the House in Montana and Arizona.
Cejka is going door-to-door to offer Togiak residents Election Day rides to the polls. So are Stephanie Poulsen and Angel Ayojiak; they are among the voter support specialists hired throughout the region by Grace Mulipola, Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s early-voting project manager.
As the election winds down, the whole village is invited to a potluck at the senior center. They’ll celebrate exercising their right to vote and, they hope, the success of the candidates and ballot measures they supported.
This story was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.