In September 2020, KYUK reported that about 130 residents living in Mertarvik did not receive primary election ballots because the Division of Elections did not know people were living there.
Here is a review of everything that went wrong for Newtok and Mertarvik during the primary:
Local election workers backed out of the job two weeks before the election. The Alaska Division of Elections then waited until it found new election workers to send the ballots and election materials to Newtok, which happened a week later. As a result, those materials did not make it to Newtok before the primary election.
To make matters worse, the division said it did not know that many Newtok residents had relocated to another site across the river — Mertarvik — until a week before the primary.
After KYUK reported this failing, state Sens. Lyman Hoffman and Donny Olson wrote a letter to the Division of Elections requesting a “detailed plan with steps the Division of Elections will take to re-establish confidence for the upcoming general election.”
On Oct. 13, nine state Representatives, including District 38 Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, penned a similar letter to Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, asking “what assurances can you provide to our Alaskan Native communities that they will not be forgotten and neglected during the upcoming general election?”
In an interview with KYUK, Meyer, along with Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, tried to address state lawmaker concerns.
“I would hope that everybody does trust our elections because we did work the Newtok issue very, very hard,” Meyer said.
He and Fenumiai said that the issues from Newtok’s primary have been addressed. Fenumiai said the division has now secured voting officials in Newtok and Mertarvik for the general election. She said early voting in Mertarvik would start Oct. 20, and Newtok’s polling location would be open on Election Day.
For other communities where the division currently doesn’t have election workers, Fenumiai said the division would send ballots and election materials to the tribal or city offices anyway, instead of waiting to secure a worker.
“And if at the last minute we’re able to find a worker if we don’t have one, then the materials are there and ready for the workers to get a precinct set up so voting can commence,” Fenumiai said.
As for not knowing about people living in Mertarvik, Fenumiai said that other state departments that know more about the status of relocation projects need to communicate better.
“The [Alaska] Department of Commerce, the [Alaska] Division of Community and Regional Affairs, might be privy to this information, and it would be good for them to provide the [Alaska] Division of Elections with this information,” Fenumiai said.
But the larger staffing problem for elections in rural areas has not been addressed entirely. Meyer said there are four precincts that still don’t have voting officials for Election Day: Sleetmute, Clark’s Point, Wainwright and Deering. He said the division sent letters warning everyone in those four communities.
“A letter just saying, hey, look, we’re not able to find anybody to help us. If you know of anybody, please let us know,” Meyer said. “But just in case, maybe you should request an absentee ballot.”
Meyer said that an absentee ballot application was enclosed in every letter.
In a response to one of the state lawmakers, Fenumiai wrote that the challenge of hiring over 2,000 election workers in over 400 precincts is not unique to this year’s election. She wrote that workers oftentimes back out of the job, sometimes at the last minute.
She added, “This is not meant to be a complaint. This is a crucial part of our duties, but also the hardest because we are dealing with people (who can change their minds).”
Fenumiai said the challenge with finding election workers has persisted despite an increase to election workers’ pay earlier this year by $5 an hour. The increase was partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Fenumiai said the division does everything it can to recruit workers through various channels.
“We outreach to, like the lieutenant governor said, the local government offices, the tribal offices, the larger native corporations, state legislators, and none of that has proven to be very successful,” Fenumiai said.
The state officials’ response to state lawmakers’ concerns did not satisfy Sen. Olson from Nome. He said he requested a detailed plan for the general election, not a list of excuses for why the primary did not go well. Olson acknowledges the difficulty of hiring in rural Alaska, but he said it was not a valid excuse for not offering in-person voting.
“If you can’t find somebody, and then I think you got to send somebody out there to go and conduct the elections,” Olson said. “That’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to vote, and every vote is counted.”
Fenumiai said the division only has 28 full time employees, and that insufficient housing and a lack of same-day air service to rural communities would not permit workers to be flown in and out. She added the COVID-19 pandemic added extra complications this year.
Meyer suggested that state lawmakers could take a more active role in recruiting election workers.
“I would recommend that the legislators send an email out or a newsletter out, which typically most of them do, and just say, hey, look, [Alaska] Division of Elections needs help,” Meyer said.
The lieutenant governor emphasized that, in order to have a successful election, the division can’t do it alone.