Native groups, Division of Elections add new voting sites

This fall, residents of more than 100 communities around Alaska will find it a little easier to cast their ballot.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Association, Get out the Native Vote, and Division of Elections worked together on establishing new absentee in-person and early voting sites throughout the state.

In total, there are 128 new sites this year in villages around Alaska, with many in Western and Northern Alaska, including Adak, Shishmaref, and Wainwright, as well Tyonek on the western side of Cook Inlet, Tanana in the Interior and Copper Center, north of Valdez.

In previous years, residents of the 128 communities often had to travel to vote.

“Many would have to travel 30, 60 miles to go vote in hub communities, or they’d have to request absentee ballots,” said Kim Reitmeier, executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association.

When voting absentee in-person, the voter’s eligibility to vote is verified after the voter is issued a ballot.  Since the voter’s eligibility can not be verified at the time of voting, the voter’s voted ballot is placed inside an absentee voting envelope prior to being placed in the ballot box.

When voting early, the voter’s eligibility to vote is verified at the time of voting through the Division of Elections statewide voter registration system. A voter is eligible to vote early if the voter is voting at the Regional Elections Office where the voter is registered and if the voter’s registration record is active and current. Since the voter’s eligibility to vote could be verified, the voter simply signs a certificate and the voted ballot is placed directly into the ballot box.

The state also has an online voting option, but it’s not widely used.

The new sites were chosen with help from representatives from each of the twelve Native regional corporations, Reitmeier said. Those representatives helped identify the locations with the largest concentrations of permanent, year-round residents, who would benefit from a voting site.

“We wanted to ensure that our rural communities had equal access to voting as we did here in our hub centers,” Reitmeier said.

The new sites are just one piece of a multi-faceted effort to increase Alaska Native voter turnout.

“This is just one step in ensuring the Native community is able to exercise our fundamental right to vote,” said Julie Kitka, president of AFN, in a formal statement.

Reitmeier and others have also worked on the Get out the Native Vote campaign, which conducted voter registration efforts and worked on voter education.

“I think like any other group, it’s a push to show our younger generation the importance of voting,” Reitmeier said.

Reitmeier said the campaign is also trying to counter the mindset that Alaska Native votes don’t count, or that rural votes don’t count, and instead create a cultural push to show pride and take part in civic responsibilities.

“If we empower our people…. we have more say in what happens to the state.”

Although the campaign has targeted voter registration with mailings and tables at various events, now the focus is on encouraging people to vote early, Reitmeier said.

At the AFN convention in Anchorage, the campaign will encourage people to go to Anchorage’s City Hall and vote right away, she said.

“We’ll continue with phone calls and door knocking and events, but AFN will be our big push,” she said.

Reitmeier said that the efforts to get Alaska Native ballots turned in won’t end in November. They’re also trying to get the State of Alaska to develop a bipartisan committee to improve voting access in the future. It could study voting options in other states — like mail-based elections — and determine what might meet Alaska’s needs, she said.

“Our rural communities should have equal access to what we have,” she said.

11/23/2016 - 2:31pm