By Thomas J. Lukish
Late September featured more than a mere drop in temperatures for Alaska residents, as U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason issued an interim order that would shake the state’s electoral landscape.
The order came in response to Toyukak v. Treadwell, a case in which the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) accused Republican Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and others of violating the Voting Rights Act’s (VRA) Section 203 language assistance provision. The order required, largely, that language assistance be provided to Yup’ik- and Gwich’in-speaking natives, who hoped for a chance to participate in the political process. Notably, in Alaska, nearly one in every five individuals is native.
Responding to the Order
By November 28 of this year, Alaska’s Division of Elections, which Lt. Governor Treadwell heads, must submit “a comprehensive report to the [U.S. District] Court detailing its compliance. . . .” In consequence, despite Treadwell’s professed obedience, detailed analysis of that compliance will be for another day. Importantly, though, significant changes have come to Alaska through the efforts of the Division, the state legislature, and organizations committed to native voting rights.
Each year, the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) holds a convention which, the organization claims, is “the largest representative annual gathering in the United States of any Native peoples.” Interestingly, Treadwell spoke at this year’s convention, which took place on October 23. The Lt. Governor praised voter turnout increases among young and Alaska Native voters. Additionally, Treadwell commended the state’s Division of Elections, saying the group has “more than doubled the number of early voting locations since 2012, by establishing 128 polling places in time for the 2014 cycle.” Indeed, Treadwell claimed the 2014 ballots as being “the most widely available in state history.” Perhaps this is political speak, but in the tune of Judge Gleason’s demands, it at least appears that Treadwell is now working to help the Alaska Native cause.
Also of note, in addressing the Federation, the Lt. Governor applauded the signing of Alaska House Bill 216, “which makes 20 Native languages official languages of the State of Alaska.” For some, the legislation is not enough, but the bill is likely yet another step in the right direction.
In Anticipation of Election Day
Beyond speeches and state legislation, participation in the political process has proven to be a growing interest for Alaska Natives. Significantly, the AFN created a voting guide to better inform native voters. Another organization committed to increasing native influence is Get Out the Native Vote, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit group sponsored by the CEOs of Alaska Native corporations.” Notably, the group bussed individuals, perhaps otherwise unlikely to vote, to an early voting center, where they were able to exercise their civic duty.
The buzz has not been ignored. Rhonda McBride, an Anchorage news reporter, believes, “never . . . has there been such an intense focus on politics.” In a recent article, McBride alludes to the “election-season ritual” of “court[ing] the Alaska Native vote,” saying the practice has “reached a fever pitch.” Perhaps this is because, “[T]he native community is beginning to realize that [it] can sway elections. . . .” It is likely fair to suggest the Alaska Federation of Natives has come to terms with such realization. Indeed, at the aforementioned convention, “[t]he call to vote was so consistent and steady that it could not be ignored.” Mark Trahant, a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage, stated, “Every where you turned there was a reminder to vote, and to tell someone else to vote. . . .” In one way or another, the native community of Alaska seems determined to make its voice heard.
Where Things Stand
After delay, Independent candidate Bill Walker has emerged to become Alaska’s next governor. Additionally, despite Democrat Mark Begich’s refusal to concede, it appears Republican Dan Sullivan will be the next U.S. Senator from America’s largest state.
Whether something wild happens for Begich, or Sullivan is officially named victor, it seems both candidates assumed the rural vote would greatly impact this year’s Senatorial election. Of note, Begich set up offices in some of Alaska’s smaller localities. Furthermore, reports suggest Dan Sullivan was not hesitant to mention his wife’s Alaska Native heritage while on the campaign trail. Having won just four years ago as a write-in candidate with significant native support, current Senator Lisa Murkowski would likely share in the belief that Alaska Natives make a difference.
While election outcomes are often difficult to predict, one thing has become is clear: Alaskans care about voting. The proof is in the pudding, for in the 2014 midterm elections, Alaska ranked third amongst all fifty states in terms of voter turnout based on percentage of the voter-eligible population. Additionally, there are reasons to believe absentee voting numbers were particularly high in the state. With language assistance and organizational efforts abound, an increase in Alaska Native political influence seems inevitable, and our democracy is better for it.
Minto, Alaska poll worker Philip Titus described November 4th as being a “nice sunny day with no snow.” For the people of Alaska, there are many reasons to suggest even brighter days are ahead.