“There’s an excitement about voting this year. As people I know early vote, they text and email me to let me know,” said Cindy Allred, of Get Out the Native Vote and ANCSA Regional Association, where she’s Deputy Director. Selfies and photos snapped of voters, with likes and comments from friends and neighbors, adorn the Bristol Bay Votes Facebook group, set up by Grace Mulipola, legal assistant at Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC). Mulipola is coordinating early voting for her region.
A concerted effort by Alaska Native organizations this past summer means breakthroughs in voting access for people in the small, remote villages of rural Alaska. For the 2014 general election, some 200 villages now have access to the state’s two-week early-voting period, up from just 30 as recently as this year’s primary. Casting a ballot ahead of Election Day was formerly only available in Alaska’s cities.
Coupled with a tight Senate race that may determine which party controls that chamber, the new access makes the Alaska Native vote—potentially one-fifth of the electorate—a power to be reckoned with. Senatorial candidate Mark Begich (D) has offices in rural communities and will be there on election day, helping ensure that every eligible voter gets to cast a ballot, said Zack Fields, Alaska Democratic Party communications director. His opponent, Dan Sullivan (R), is relying more on traditional political advertising to reach this group.
In a meeting on October 31 at BBNC’s headquarters in Anchorage, leaders from around the state explained where they are now. Local early-vote coordinators are on the go, with lists in hand of registered voters in their area. “They’re emailing, going door-to-door, phoning and going on radio open lines to get the word out,” said April Ferguson, senior vice president and general counsel of BBNC, one of the regional Native corporations.
Surprising problems arose. “People weren’t familiar with early voting and worried their ballot wouldn’t be counted,” Ferguson said. “A lot of education needed to be done.”
Still, according to Ana Swanson, communications intern with Bering Straits Native Corporation, “Everyone’s aware of early voting now. We’re on an upward spiral.”
The villages’ new absentee voting officials also required assistance. The state gave them about five minutes of training for a complex and demanding job, said Adrian LeCornu, a fellow at First Alaskans Institute. “As a result, they were very frustrated. So, we partnered with the Department of Elections and created a webinar that explained early voting, how to deal with a special needs voter and more.”
“The state has not been particularly helpful,” said Allred. That extends to providing those who aren’t English-proficient with a ballot in their own language, something mandated under the Voting Rights Act. Though Alaska Natives have won federal lawsuits to ensure the state lives up to the law, the process has been rocky. Some translations given to early voters this year have been poor, said Ferguson. In one polling place, she added, there was no ballot available in one voter’s language, so election workers offered ballots in a succession of other languages, as though any one might do.
Village by village, voter by voter, the Alaska Native leadership is making sure their people can exercise their right to vote. And by the way, they’ve all early-voted.
This story was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.