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Get Out the Native Vote makes final election push

Rhonda McBride
Rhonda McBride

With only one week left to generate voter interest, groups like Get Out the Native Vote have stepped up their ground game.

In East Anchorage, GOTNV opened an early voting site at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s headquarters on Tuesday morning.

In preparation, seventeen CITC staffers took a class on how to run a polling station last week.

“I think it’s really neat that so many people at Cook Inlet Tribal Council want to assist their fellow Alaskans in insuring that they have a place to come and vote,” said Jeffrey Congdon, the state elections supervisor who trained them. Congdon says he normally works with four or five volunteers at a time.

Although the polling station is open to the whole community, the tribal council is hosting the early voting site, mainly as a convenience for its 400 employees and its tribal members.

“It’s right across from Costco on DeBarr. You can get a lot of errands done at the same time,” said Michelle Sparck, director of strategic initiatives for GOTNV in Alaska. “We just want to make the community feel like they have a place that they’re comfortable in.”

Sparck says there are also efforts to draw more Rural voters to the polls.

Although the statewide turn-out in the primary hit 32 percent and surpassed the last three primary elections, Sparck says the number of voters in many predominately Native communities failed to reach 20 percent.

She says August is prime time for putting up food for winter, so the lackluster turn-out doesn’t necessarily reflect voter interest but does point to a need for more effort to generate better turn-out in the general election.

Sparck says her group recently met with the Alaska Air Carriers Association to raise awareness about what she calls “precious cargo,” election materials and ballots headed to and from Rural Alaska that will travel by airplane. Sparck says it’s important that pilots and airline agents recognize the packaging, so ballots don’t get pushed aside for other air freight.

“Let’s make sure all the players are engaged and involved, and we have all of the dates flagged,” Sparck said. “And that we’re all prepared to make sure our villages and our Native communities can vote with ease.”

Sparck and other Native organizations have been working closely with people like Donna Folger in Tanana, a village at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers. Folger has run elections there for 30 years, a job she took over from her mom.

Just before the Primary, Folger’s grandson was killed when he was hit by a car. Voters wondered if she’d be able to handle the elections at city hall. Instead, she surprised them by opening-up her home to voters.

“I think the strength of my community helped me do that,” said Folger, who didn’t want to be away from home, but didn’t want voters to miss-out.

“They get to have a cup of coffee, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon or spam. And we served them after they did their voting. I think our community is expecting us to have that again November,” Folger said.

That’s why Folger, on a shopping trip to Fairbanks to buy Halloween candy, took the opportunity to pick up some extra bacon and eggs.

When she returned, she said she got a call from the state elections division asking her to hold elections at City Hall, where polling traditional takes place.

She says she still plans on cooking breakfast for voters, only she’ll serve it at City Hall.

About 50 voters in Tanana cast their ballots in the Primary. With her added breakfast incentive, Folger hopes to double that number come November 8th.

Although GOTNV doesn’t advocate for candidates or issues, Sparck predicts that Mary Peltola’s fight to keep her seat in Congress will drive the Native vote. She also feels widespread education on ranked choice voting will turn the tide.

“We’re hoping this turns into more of a tsunami, when it comes to the midterms,” Sparck said.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.