Language and other barriers faced by Indigenous communities and the inability to get information to voters in broadband deserts caused a distressingly high rate of ballot rejections in Alaska’s June primaries.
These problems exacerbate longstanding issues of inequity in access to voting and political representation in Alaska, such as relying on a postal service heavily dependent on weather and small airplanes, said Michelle (Macuar) Sparck, director of strategic initiatives at Get Out the Native Vote.
The switch to an innovative but complex ranked-choice voting system this year and its impromptu deployment for a special election following the death of longtime Republican Congressman Don Young confused voters, likely resulting in low turnout and high rejection rates, especially in the state’s rural communities.
“We’re a very low-population state, but our challenges are massive,” Sparck said.
High ballot rejection rates
A witness signature has been a long standing requirement to casting an absentee ballot in Alaska. Then came 2020, when an Alaska court ruled the practice to be unconstitutional during a global pandemic, so the rule was temporarily waived.
In 2022, witness signatures were once again required, but many voters didn’t know that.
Statewide, more than 4.5% of ballots cast in the June special election were thrown out. In rural parts of Alaska, it was about three times that. Though most ballots were rejected because of a missing witness signature, there were additional reasons for the high rejection rate: Notably late postmarking, submitting after the deadline and missing a required numerical identifier (such as a driver’s license number).
“There are 17 mechanisms in place that rules which ballots are going to be thrown out – and often rural challenges are by nature a barrier,” Sparck said. “All these ballots were in English. They could get translated versions, but much gets lost in translation, and cultural barriers are inherent. Everything you need to know is available at the Division of Elections website, but broadband is an issue within itself.”
Unlike numerous other states that have established some kind of “ballot curing” process if there’s a missing signature or other issue, Alaska law doesn’t permit voters to fix their ballots after they’ve been mailed. That meant more than 7,400 ballots cast in June were simply not counted, with voters not knowing until it was too late that their vote wouldn’t count.
Ultimately, Democrat Mary Peltola won election to the U.S. House, beating Republican Sarah Palin by three percentage points to fill the remainder of Young’s term. She will be the first Alaskan Native to serve in Congress and the first woman to fill Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat.
Mail and geography challenges
Alaska faces a unique set of challenges that can hinder elections: Small local post offices have been known to close for weeks when employees get sick. Much of the state’s mail, including absentee ballots, is transported by small planes, which frequently are grounded in bad weather. Most of Alaska’s rural areas have spotty broadband internet – or none at all.
Sparck has urged the state Division of Elections to work with local organizations and volunteers to ensure ballots can physically make it to communities.
“If the weather’s bad, or a freight order might take priority over a ballot bag, moving of voter materials, and staffing at the polls is a real perennial challenge. We have to work to get ahead of it,” she said. “The state struggles to make voting accessible, but sometimes that means there’s no voting whatsoever.”
Voters unable to vote in person because of age, illness or a disability are allowed to have a representative deliver and return an absentee ballot on their behalf.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Redistricting adds to voter confusion
New state legislative districts have contributed to voter confusion this year, and advocates say it will continue to create issues in November.
The original map disenfranchised voters of color, the court said, in an attempt to give conservative candidates a better chance of winning more districts. The court ordered changes to redistricting that were approved in May that advocates say are more fair. But informing voters of new polling place locations has been difficult.
“I drove to the wrong polling location, and I do this kind of work,” said Jackie Arnaciar Boyer, deputy director of Native Peoples Action. “I have a car, a flexible job, and I’m in the higher income bracket compared to someone who might have taken the bus, or might not have a smartphone to look up changes in polling locations. These are our concerns.”
Two key laws prohibit discrimination against Native Alaskans when it comes to voting: The Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945 and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But Alaska continues to fall short in providing voters equitable access to the polls, a 2019 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found.
In the 2016 election, there were significant deficiencies in language implementation, especially around required Yup’ik and Gwich’in translations. The report found that 39% of workers never received training, and the ones that did were trained exclusively in English by a non-Native instructor.
U.S. Department of Justice monitors were placed in several jurisdictions during the state’s Aug. 16 primary to ensure compliance with minority language and accessibility requirements.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their candidates according to preference, determining a win by a simple majority – one more than 50%. And an open primary lets all voters receive the same ballot that includes all candidates, regardless of party.
To get voters up to speed on the changes, the Division of Elections produced ads, videos, fliers and online explainers, Voice of America reported.
In the lead-up to the election, organizations got creative with their outreach: Americans for Prosperity-Alaska, for example, held a drag show in Anchorage, having spectators practice the state’s new ranked-choice voting method to crown a winner.
One theory behind ranked-choice voting is that it will make politics in Alaska less partisan, Sparck said. To get the most votes, candidates have an incentive not to alienate themselves to the voters whose first choice might be someone else, as second and third choice rankings could put their own candidacy over the top.
More than half of Alaskan voters don’t belong to one of the major parties, which made closed partisan primaries an election for the select few, said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections. And when political parties are the groups doing the educational outreach, that large chunk of voters gets overlooked, and they wind up in the dark.
“Voter education and getting our voters up to speed is really challenging,” Sparck said. “We had a special election on top of the statewide primary, and we unveiled rank choice voting. It was a perfect storm of confusion. … It’s up to us, advocacy groups, to help get the Division to see the gaps and end the barriers.”
Polling place closures
In the state’s 2020 primary, six villages didn’t have polling places. A shortage of poll workers caused the closures, even though the Division of Elections raised hourly pay rates, Alaska Public Media reported. Voters instead had to go to their communities’ tribal or municipal offices.
Jurisdictions continue to have a tough time finding poll workers “given the political environment right now,” Grenn said. “But the DOE is doing a great job with their limited resources and continues to find ways to improve fair and easy access to voting for all Alaskans.”
Unlike states that have made it more difficult to register to vote, Alaska has an automatic voter registration system, and it’s unique: Residents who apply for a Permanent Fund Dividend – an annual check mailed to Alaskans from revenue generated by oil companies – are automatically registered to vote, unless they opt out. More than 90% of Alaskans are registered for the PFD.
And unlike states that have used strict voter ID requirements to cast a ballot, photo ID is not necessary to vote in Alaska. You can show a hunting license, paycheck, utility bill or a number of other options. And if you don’t have ID on hand, you can cast a provisional ballot.
Relaxed voter ID requirements are crucial for Alaska to make voting easier, advocates say.
“If you live off the road system, you can’t just walk into your local DMV. Or sometimes the mail is very slow,” Grenn said.
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