In a Mid-Term Election Year, Are Ballot Measures, Candidates Enough to Draw Alaska Native Voters?

Oct 21, 2014

Fairbanks, AK - According to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout in mid-term election years is typically about 10 to 20 percent lower compared to years when there is a presidential election.  But November’s ballot in Alaska could draw voters even from rural native villages.

In Alaska, voter turn-out rates have ranged between 59 and 66 percent since 2000, when a presidential candidate is on the ballot.  But in mid-term election years, that number drops to about 51 percent.
“It’s always hard to define an issue for somebody else," says State Representative David Guttenberg. He’s served in Alaska’s legislature for 12 years. He says this year, Alaskans could buck the mid-term election trend and turn out in higher numbers.

“I think this is going to be a strong election year here," says Guttenberg. "I think it’s all about getting your people to vote.  It doesn’t matter what the polls say. If your people don’t vote you don’t win.”

In November, Alaskan’s will choose a new US senator, a new governor and they’ll decide on ballot measures that could legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage and require the legislature to approve future large-scale metallic mining operations. As well, there are number of Alaska Native candidates running for state legislature and Lieutenant Governor.

Steve Ginnis is the Executive Director of the Fairbanks Native Association. He calls this year’s election “critical” for Alaska Natives.  “Well, I think we’re really at a cross-roads," says Ginnis. "We have the governor’s election coming up.  We have the Senate races coming up.  All these people can make major shifts in the policy in the state of Alaska. I think the native community needs to be at the table.”

Two years ago, redistricting added between 25 and 30 Alaska Native villages to the district David Guttenberg represents. He says it’s challenging to convince Alaska Natives in rural villages to vote.
“You know, they’re always far away.  They don’t pay attention until it’s right in their face.”

But Guttenberg says there are some issues that draw voters in even the most rural villages.
 “Their issues are hunting and fishing rights, sovereignty and energy, so it’s what is affecting their lives daily," says Guttenberg. "It’s food on the table, it’s heating their homes it’s who makes the decision on their daily lives.”

If the candidates and ballot measures aren’t enough to draw Alaska Native voters to the polls, perhaps translated material will.  This is the first time in history voters who speak Yupik and Gwich’in will be able to vote in their indigenous languages.