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Alaska Native Vote Could Carry More Weight At The Polls

Fairbanks, AK - There are more than 87,000 eligible Alaska Native voters in the state, but it’s not clear how many of them are registered or plan to go to the polls this November.  Some Native leaders believe their demographic has the potential to influence election results.

Alaska is home to nearly 143 thousand Alaska Native and American Indian residents – close to twenty percent of the state’s total population. More than 60 percent of them are eligible to vote. But the state Division of Elections doesn’t track voters based on race. “Most of the data that’s been collected unfortunately has been collected through litigation and usually involving voter rights lawsuits," says Mark Trahant. He’s a visiting Journalism Professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.  He has covered Indian country since the 1970’s. He says a combination of data from the Census Bureau and the National Commission on Voting Rights shows turnout among Alaska Native voters has historically been low.
“Alaska is really an interesting case," Trahant says, "because the potential here is as great as anywhere with one in five potential voters. But the results haven’t equaled that over the years.”

But Steve Ginnis argues that’s changing. “I think the native community is beginning to realize that they can sway elections if we get out and vote.” Ginnis is the Executive Director of the Fairbanks Native Association.  He says in recent years Alaska Native voters have started to recognize their votes carry weight.  “Like for example, Senator Murkowski. Without the native vote, she wouldn’t be in the Senate today.”

In 2010, US Senator Lisa Murkowski won reelection to the Senate as a write-in candidate. She credited Alaska Native voters with her win at a State of the Indian Nations Address in 2011.

“I will tell each and every one of you that my success in running this historic write-in campaign would not have been possible," said Murkowski in the address. "It would not have been possible if Alaska’s native people did not turn out at the polls did not energize, did not come together as they did and I deeply, deeply appreciate the trust that Alaska Native peoples have placed in me.”

Mark Trahant says Alaska Native voters did help Senator Murkowski. “I think it was because it was so close, but I think it could have been much more significant had the numbers been higher.”

Trahant says voter turnout isn’t larger, because voting in Alaska is complicated. “For example if you live in a village but come back and forth to work in Anchorage, where do you vote? There are things that make it very complicated in this particular state,” he says.

In other states like Montana and New Mexico, American Indian voter registration exceeds that of the general public. Trahant calls those states 'bellwethers.' “I think in politics it really boils down to three things: organization, organization, organization!" explains Trahant. "In Montana they are extraordinarily well organized.  There’s a group called Western Native Voice that’s gone out of its way to move people to the polls and get people registered.”

Alaska Native organizations are finding ways to mobilize their eligible voting population. There’s a non-partisan effort to register new voters. At least one corporation will offer employees transportation to polling places on Election Day and the state has increased the number of early voting and absentee polling locations in rural native villages statewide.