If you thought two weeks was a long time to wait for official election results, in 1972, votes from one of Alaska’s most remote communities were not officially counted until after the presidential inauguration three months later.
This is part one of a two-part series on the logistics of voting in Alaska. The above images are stickers available to early voters in Yup’ik, Northern Inupiaq, and Aleut designed by Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee to showcase the diversity, strength, and power of Alaskan women.
There was a time in Alaskan history back when the state was still a territory that it held elections in October. Although residents of the territory could not vote for president, the rest of the country eagerly anticipated the results from its statewide and local elections, which were believed to forecast how things would turn out in the rest of the Lower 48 a month later. A New York Times article from 1952 suggested, “As Alaska goes, so goes the nation.”
Nowadays, the State of Alaska is one of the last to report its results. In this year’s nail-biter of an election, the Last Frontier’s tardiness led it to become the butt of many jokes and memes. But there are a number of reasons – some legitimate and others contestable – for why Alaska’s Division of Elections takes so long to count the ballots of the state’s over half a million registered voters.
Generous absentee voting deadlines
The first reason for the state’s slow tally is the state’s generous deadlines, which allow ballots to arrive from voters both within the state and the rest of the U.S. up to 10 days after the election, and up to 15 days if those voters reside overseas. Since this year’s election was held on November 3, the last ballots to arrive won’t even be counted until this Wednesday, November 18.
Plus, as in the rest of the country, the pandemic led more people to vote early than ever before. In view of the virus’ spread, the Alaska Supreme Court also waived the need for voters to have their ballot witnessed. As a result of the big switch to absentee voting, hundreds of thousands of votes needed to be transported across the state, often by airplane (and not, contrary to popular belief, by dog sled – but more on that next week). Alaska also doesn’t start counting absentee ballots until a week after the election, which is later than every other state.
A lengthy voter verification process
Alaska’s Division of Elections says the week-long delay to the start of counting is due to a need to verify that every vote cast is legitimate and that nobody has voted twice. Although doing so is a crime, given the state’s lack of roads and overall infrastructure, one could imagine a situation in which a person might have thought to try sending their ballot by mail but then also decided to vote in person when they realized that, say, the weather would actually allow them to make it to the polling booth for once.
Voter verification is also tricky in Alaska because it’s one of a dozen or so states with more registered voters than residents. In 2018, there were 569,903 registered active voters even though the state only had 548,373 residents aged 18 or older. This doesn’t necessarily indicate fraud, for many residents could have simply moved out of state, but it does underscore the need for the state to cross-check all submitted ballots.
Yet this late start to counting, is where some, such as the Anchorage Daily News’ editorial board, criticize Alaska’s process. With absentee ballots having started to arrive in October, the newspaper argued that the verification process could have started earlier than seven days before the election, when things actually commenced.
The biggest reason for Alaska’s slow counting – and the reason for its generous mail-in deadlines to begin with – is the lack of sufficient infrastructure to enable the timely delivery of completed ballots to a central location. Dozens of Alaska’s rural villages lack roads and daily flight service. While this isolation has spared many of them during the coronavirus pandemic, the flip side is that it takes a long time to get anything in or out, whether voting machines or absentee ballots.
In-person voting in rural Alaska: no small feat
In rural villages and towns, many voters choose to cast their vote in person. Voting by mail is not always feasible. They might not have a regular address at which to receive a ballot, or they might need assistance in a Native language. While a few larger hubs like Utqiagvik have modern optical scan machines, 135 mostly small and remote villages are “hand-count precincts” where votes are tabulated by – you guessed it – hand. These precincts accounted for about 5% of Alaska’s votes in 2008. About three weeks before election day, ballots, pens, and this year, hand sanitizer and wipes, are sent out to each precinct. The Division of Elections then calls each location about 10 days before the election to ensure that everything has arrived.
On election day, places like community centers, bingo halls, and tribal offices allow registered voters to come in and complete a ballot. Some offer free food like hamburgers, hotdogs, and chips. But things don’t always go smoothly. Inclement weather can prevent people from getting to the polls on time, especially in November, when autumn quickly turns to winter.
Some precincts go quite literally an extra mile to ensure they reach all eligible voters. In 2004, Kasigluk, a village separated by a river in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, had a ballot machine (as opposed to just hand-counting ballots). A 2004 series on voting in rural Alaska by local NBC affiliate KTUU documented the following turn of events on election day:
“The local election officer makes an announcement through a borrowed marine radio that anyone who wants to vote has to come down to the community center by 11:30 A.M. because that is when the officer is taking the single polling machine to the other side of the river. At 11:30, the local election official collects the materials, packs up the ballot machine and drives it by four-wheeler down to the river.
The old village site, where some tribe members still reside, is on the other side of the river but there is no bridge, so the election officer loads the ballot machine and materials onto a boat and crosses over. When the weather is bad, this is no mean feat.
The ballot machine is set up again at the school on the other side where the children recite the pledge of allegiance in Yup’ik. The principal makes an announcement on the radio that the ballot machine has arrived and the poll in Kasigluk is open. The DOE says there are about 150 communities like this one.”Source: Landreth and Smith (2007) pp. 82-83.
In typical hand-count precincts, after all the votes are received, the ballots are tallied, with the results entered into a prepared tally book and then called into the regional office. These results then get put into a computer and uploaded via modem connection into the Alaska Director’s Office.
In the 1970s, some of Alaska’s votes were reported after the inauguration
If you thought two weeks was a long time to wait for official election results, in the 1972 federal election between Richard Nixon, the incumbent, and Democratic challenger George McGovern, it took nearly three months for the final results to emerge from one of Alaska’s most remote communities. That year, a special plane had to air-drop ballots (as there was no ice runway yet) to the 37 registered voters on Little Diomede Island – America’s closest spit of land to Russia, just two miles away. The official returns would not be able to be sent until the Bering Sea froze over, potentially after Nixon was re-inaugurated on January 20, 1973. In the meantime, a phone call to Nome could be made to unofficially report the results.
Even in 2020, however, telephone lines to Diomede can prove unreliable. This year during the Alaskan primaries in August, phone problems prevented the island’s poll workers from reaching the Division of Elections on the night of election day and into the next day.
Diomede, in fact, only got hooked up with telephones in 1988. In an incredible example of two worlds colliding, when the phone system was introduced, given the island’s nearly cashless economy, some of the town’s Iñupiat residents reportedly expected “to pay their phone bills by barter–trading walrus ivory carvings to Bob Blodgett, Mukluk Telephone Co. president, as payment.”
Does remoteness impede democracy?
Alaska’s ability to carry out an election in the face of incredible logistical difficulties is impressive. Credit is due not just to the state, but to local poll workers, too. But the state hasn’t always supported Alaska Native voting. While in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act made all Native Americans citizens, thereby granting them the right to vote, immediately after in 1925, the Alaska State Legislature immediately the Voters Literacy Act requiring voters to speak and read English.
Even once this discriminator law was finally overruled by the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, which banned literacy tests and other exclusionary procedures, several of Alaska’s elected officials did little to ensure that Alaska Natives could practice their right to vote. The late senator Ted Stevens, for instance, pushed against making election materials available in Alaska Native languages.
Since then, Alaska Natives’ voting access has improved. The state now provides election materials in eight Alaska Native languages and dialects, while oral assistance, usually through recordings, is offered for “historically unwritten languages.” (The state has at least 20 Native languages.)
Yet rural and Native votes might still be suppressed by virtue of living off the grid. To overcome this problem, in 2014, then-attorney general Eric Holder, a civil rights activist, announced a plan to improve voting access for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. He remarked of the long distances many Native Americans have to travel to reach the polls:
“These conditions are not only unacceptable, they’re outrageous…As a nation, we cannot — and we will not — simply stand by as the voices of Native Americans are shut out of the democratic process.”
Six years later in 2020, many Native Americans and Alaska Natives still had to travel long distances to reach their polling places. They also had to contend with tactics designed by the Trump administration, such as more stringent voter identification laws, that make it harder for Native Americans to vote. Scenes of Navajo Nation members in New Mexico on horseback (whose votes may have been crucial to turning the state blue) were lauded as heroic. But why should the country’s Indigenous Peoples need to make such an effort to enjoy a right so basic and a duty expected of all American citizens over age 18: vote?