In ‘Mary’s House,’ an Effort to Strengthen Alaska Native Voters

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On the final day of the Federation of Alaska Natives’ annual convention on Saturday, all the contestants in the statewide races took to the stage to address conventioneers from across the state, amid messages from Alaska Native leaders about the importance of voting in the election that’s less than three weeks away.

Of the four gubernatorial candidates, three U.S. Senate candidates, and four U.S. House candidates who have spoken in forums about their political stances and backgrounds, one in particular has drawn outrage from the audience – Democrat Mary Peltola, who won a special election in August to replace Rep. Don Young in the US House, becoming the first Alaskan in Congress. It’s a title that has earned Peltola emotional tributes and rock star treatment at the convention, as she runs again for a full two-year term.

Some leaders hope this will result in greater turnout from rural voters, who face challenges such as slow mail delivery and a high rate of rejection of ballots.

“He’s a juggernaut for sure,” said Michelle Sparck, who leads a nonpartisan Get Out the Native Vote initiative, of Peltola’s candidacy.

“You can taste it, how excited everyone is to see her in this role, and we want to support her,” Sparck said. “But a lot of people don’t realize it’s not over either. She’s just serving a sentence. She has her own race to run in November. So we’re trying to make everyone realize that and take that enthusiasm and invest it in running for the November election.

Some of Peltola’s supporters did not vote for her in June – when she faced 47 other candidates in a special primary – or in August, when her name appeared twice, once for the special ranked general election and once for the pick- a regular primary.

“It was a very passive experience, because maybe they didn’t know they knew her. But they know her. So everybody puts those pieces together, the light bulbs go out,” Sparck said. “They are like. “Oh yes, we have to show up, we have to vote for her.”

October, APN, Federation of Alaska Natives, Dena'ina Center

When Peltola’s name was announced ahead of the United States House Candidates’ Forum, he was greeted by cheers from the crowd, many of whom held up cutouts of Peltola’s face distributed by his campaign. But Peltola says enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.

“I think a lot of people who are enthusiastic about my candidacy are generally not enthusiastic voters. They don’t necessarily have the follow-up. There could be the intention,” Peltola said on Saturday.

[At AFN, Murkowski says she’ll vote for longtime friend and Democrat Mary Peltola for U.S. House]

Peltola said the girlfriend of one of her stepsons, who lives with her and her husband in Anchorage, was not registered to vote until recently. The 21-year-old did not vote for Peltola in the June special primary or the August special election.

“I’m sharing this story not to embarrass him, but to illustrate that we know people who are unregistered and we assume they are, and they may even live in our own home,” Peltola said.

Registering to vote in time isn’t the only hurdle facing rural Alaska Native voters. Anton McParland, Peltola’s campaign manager, said that in light of the high rejection rate of ballots in June’s special mail-in primary election, Peltola’s campaign encouraged voters to vote in person.

“In these spaces where we’ve seen so many rejected ballots, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people understand alternatives to in-person voting, because I think we just weren’t convinced that we could overcome some of this misinformation about this process and I didn’t want to risk people’s votes not being counted,” McParland said.

October, APN, Federation of Alaska Natives, Dena'ina Center

Early in-person voting begins Monday across Alaska, with dozens of sites open across the state.

After Peltola’s keynote address on the first day of the convention, a flood of Native leaders attempted to translate enthusiasm for Peltola into votes.

“When you get home, make sure on Election Day you call someone, your friends, to show up at the polls,” said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat from Bethel. “Show this nation, show this state and show your community that we are here and we will vote.”

Sparck, of the Get Out the Native Vote initiative, has spent months working with the Alaska Division of Elections, postal workers and local leaders to ensure they have access to vote in the November election. . During the process, she learned that some voters do not have in-person voting options in their community and must travel to nearby towns to vote; she has connected communities with fewer than 100 residents with election officials to ensure they can vote in person.

“The rejection rate (for absentee ballots) is just very disheartening, and it can put people off – why bother?” said Spark. So she works community by community to ensure that all villages, no matter how small, have election officials – “looking for those needles in the haystack”.

“It seems like a lot of effort for a small number of voters, but so many races in Alaska are so close that these really make a difference. I think if we could only get a 10% increase for rural and tribal communities… What a difference we’re going to make. We can counter the overwhelming benefits of the road system,” Sparck said.

In some rural districts, voter turnout was below 20% in the August special elections won by Peltola. In some neighborhoods along the road network, turnout approached 40%. Sparck estimates that if there was parity statewide, Alaska Native voters could account for a quarter of the votes statewide.

This year, the Division of Elections oversaw the rejection of thousands of absentee ballots — including one in six from a western Alaska state district — and left about 300 rural ballots uncounted after a mail delay, when the division determined that these ballots would not be. change the outcome of the elections. In rural communities where voting depends on a single trained election worker, unexpected events on election day can mean the polling place never opens. In an effort to reach rural voters, for whom English is often a second language, the Elections Division has translated election pamphlets into several Indigenous languages ​​and dialects.

“It takes a village to organize the vote in the elections. The Division is almost a passive agency in administering elections,” Sparck said. “I realize with more seriousness that it is we who are responsible for making this happen at the local level.”

Peltola said his campaign, for his part, has tried to use the AFN convention to get election information out to communities where mail and delivery services are expensive or unreliable.

“We are certainly doing everything in our power to reach out to people to make sure they receive material to encourage people to vote. And it’s not just for me, but just the act of voting. We encourage people to vote for whoever they want,” Peltola said.

Yet during the Saturday forum, at least one of the other candidates acknowledged that Peltola seemed to have its own gravitational pull.

“I’ve been involved in politics for 20 years in Alaska, at the grassroots level, but this is the toughest campaign, because of her,” said Sarah Palin, the former Republican governor and TV star. reality that confronts Peltola. “We are in Mary’s house, and I know it.”

October, APN, Federation of Alaska Natives, Dena'ina Center

As the two candidates stood outside in a hallway after their forum ended and posed for photos with convention attendees, a long line formed of people eager to speak with Peltola – some carrying campaign loot. that his employees were distributing downstairs. Palin took several photos before leaving the convention. Peltola remained with her followers until she was escorted to a side room for private meetings.

Two floors down in the Dena’ina Center, Palin’s words were in action. At a table manned by Peltola campaign staffers, a steady stream of people stopped to pick up “pro-Mary” T-shirts and stickers. A few tables away, artist Chevak Earl Atchak sat next to a doll he had made depicting Peltola, wearing a miniature kuspuk and mukluks like the ones she wore when she was sworn into the House United States officials last month.

October, APN, Federation of Alaska Natives, Dena'ina Center

“She eats exactly the same food as me. I have to support someone who is an ordinary human being,” said Atchak, who in previous years has made a doll of US Senator Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski and Peltola were endorsed by NPC delegates on Saturday.

When asked if he thought the doll could convince others to vote for Peltola, Atchak replied that it was not necessary.

“I don’t need to convince another human being to vote for Mary Peltola. No one needs convincing.

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