Alaska Village Relocated – But Ballots Didn’t Follow

[Image via alaskapublic]

Residents in the new Alaskan village of Mertarvik – relocated from nearby Newtok when river erosion threatened their homes –  were unable to vote in this year’s primary because the Board of Elections didn’t know they’d moved. Alaska Public Radio has more:

A mistake prevented residents of a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community from being able to vote in Alaska’s primary election. The Alaska Division of Elections said that it didn’t know people were living in Mertarvik until a week before the election. The village has roughly 130 residents.

Newtok, where residents moved from, never received supplies for its election, resulting in only 17 people there voting in the primary.

Mertarvik’s problems started with a familiar situation – no-show election workers – and then just snowballed:

The trouble with Newtok’s primary started with election officials who backed out of the job late. Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said that the state had secured two voting officials to work the primary election back in June. At that point, Newtok Tribal Administrator Andrew John wasn’t worried about the situation.

“I’m sitting there, ‘Okay, cool. Everything is going along. It’s like it’s supposed to be,’” John said.

On Aug. 5, two weeks before the primary election, one official quit, and the Division of Elections couldn’t get in contact with the other official. The tribe and the division scrambled to recruit and hire new voting officials, which they managed to do by Aug. 11, just one week before the primary. In these phone calls with the tribe and the new voting officials, Fenumiai said that they learned that people were living in Mertarvik for the first time…

In order to offer voting to residents living in Mertarvik, the Division of Elections planned to send one of the voting officials from Newtok to the new village with absentee ballots. On Aug. 11, the division’s Region IV office, located in Nome, sent the ballots and supplies to Newtok via priority shipping. This is where the whole operation really fell apart.

“Turns out that those materials never came,” John said.

There was a delay in shipping, which meant that there were no absentee ballots to take to Mertarvik. One resident who lives there, Lisa Charles, feels like she missed out on an opportunity to have her voice heard.

“I was sort of mad because I wanted to vote,” Charles said.

Fortunately, the #electiongeek can-do spirit prevailed thanks to some resourcefulness by a dedicated election worker in Newtok:

Quick thinking in Newtok allowed at least some residents to vote. Martha Simon was one of the voting officials who had taken the job a week prior. She printed out sample ballots that had been faxed ahead of time, and offered in-person voting in Newtok. Fenumiai said that state law allows for sample ballots to be used when official ballots are not available. Simon said she tried to encourage people to vote, but not many came.

“We went on the VHF every 15 minutes. We went on Facebook. We text everybody, tried to text everybody in the village to come and vote,” Simon said.

Fenumiai reported that 17 Newtok residents voted in the primary election.

Following the mishap in Newtok, Fenumiai said that the division is making some changes. The reason the election supplies were sent only a week before the primary was because the division was waiting to secure voting officials. She said that next time the ballots supplies will be sent to the village ahead of time, regardless of the election worker situation. Fenumiai said that the plan for the upcoming general election is to provide in-person voting in Newtok and absentee in-person voting in Mertarvik. She also said that election workers are still needed in Newtok.

To be fair, these kinds of issues aren’t unique to Alaska or elections; the need for departments to coordinate on the interplay of new home construction and infrastructure planning is constant. Kudos to the local officials who did their best to make it work during the primary – and here’s hoping the residents of Mertarvik are able to cast far less eventful ballots this fall. Stay tuned …

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