Steve Haycox: If you're a citizen, you should vote

The municipal election just completed reminds again of the volatility of Alaska politics and the impact a small number of voters can have. In just two weeks, Nick Moe put together a respectable and credible race against Ernie Hall, and while the final count represents a victory for Hall, voters clearly sent a message of discomfiture, as they did also in the victories of Dick Traini and Tim Steele. The result in the Hall/Moe race also well positions Nick Moe for his next electoral venture.

Voter participation in the last several municipal elections has hovered around 20 percent, as did last week's. Such low turnouts are lamentable. Those who do not vote cannot be said not to have acted. They have in fact acted by their inaction, handing political control of the city to the few who do vote, and signifying their acceptance of whatever outcome eventuates.

Those who do not vote often justify their absence by claims of ignorance, or the assertion that their vote does not really matter. Both claims fail on analysis. Ignorance of the candidates and the issues is a confession of unwillingness to make the effort to get educated. It is a shirking of those corresponding obligations the state constitution says all Alaska citizens have, in Article 1, where citizen rights are noted.

Some would argue that the ignorant ought not to vote, that only informed votes should be cast. But aside from the careless cynicism of that assertion, it's beside the point: citizens have responsibilities. Certainly many politicians depend on the ignorance of the electorate, as manifest in their campaign ads, which would never pass muster in a court of law on the point of not telling the whole truth, often as little of it as possible. The proper response to this is not resignation, but education.

It matters who is elected; different candidates favor different policies. Elections decided by a handful of votes are legend and legion in Alaska. In 2008 in Fairbanks, Mike Kelly defeated Karl Kassell for a state house seat by one vote! In 1994, running against Anchorage businessman Jim Campbell and Nenana patriarch Jack Coghill, Tony Knowles finished 536 votes ahead of Campbell, with Coghill trailing far behind. Knowles had had very close races previously, for mayor and Anchorage Assembly.

Knowles also has the distinction of the largest margin of victory in a gubernatorial campaign. In 1998 he faced Republicans John Lindauer and Robin Taylor. Lindauer won the party nomination, but late in his campaign was charged with withholding information regarding his wife's illegal financing of his effort. The Republican Party withdrew support from Lindauer and organized a write-in campaign for Taylor, a former state senator.

Knowles won with 51.27 percent of the vote to Taylor's 18.26 percent, an unprecedented and unequaled landslide.

There have been many memorable Alaska elections. In one of the strangest, in 1990 Arliss Sturgulewski won the Republican Party gubernatorial primary to face off against Tony Knowles. But the party deserted her, not trusting her position on a number of issues, including abortion and women's rights. It would not be the last time the party apparatchiks would nullify the wishes of their rank and file.

The Alaska Independence Party had made a credible showing with John Lindauer as their candidate. But the moguls of each party persuaded Walter Hickel to run on the AIP ticket against Sturgulewski and Knowles, elbowing Lindauer aside. Hickel outpolled both Sturgulewski and Knowles, 39 percent-31 percent-26 percent. Hickel promptly deserted the AIP, which had been merely a convenience for him for the duration of the election.

Such machinations depend on the support of groups of voters. Politicians constantly must gamble that the message they are listening to is the majority message, or that they can create a majority by their various arguments and assertions. Majorities are made by participating voters. Those who choose not to participate can easily affect the outcome of an election, being the bloc that would have turned the outcome had they bothered to get informed, and vote.

Sitting out an election for any but the most serious reason is an abnegation of citizenship. Jefferson, we remember, explained the need of an enlightened electorate for democracy's survival, not citizen irresponsibility.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.