Rural Alaska

Emmonak voters leaning toward a city-run liquor store; Kotzebue voters want to keep store there

BETHEL – Voters in the Yukon River village of Emmonak are leaning toward support of a city liquor store, but the outcome of Tuesday's municipal election on alcohol won't be certain until all ballots are counted.

Meanwhile in Kotzebue, voters overwhelming said they want to keep the city-owned liquor store, which has become a vital source of revenue for the Northwest Alaska hub.

So far, the split in Emmonak is 109 in favor of the city operating a liquor store and 95 opposed, with a recount scheduled for Thursday. The gap in the unofficial count is too small for certainty until absentee and questioned ballots are reviewed and counted, officials said.

City election officials reported nine absentee ballots and 17 questioned ones. The election canvass committee will meet Monday to review ballots, count additional ones of qualified voters and certify the election, according to city clerk Shannon Andrew.

He said it doesn't appear that any of the questioned ballots were cast by Emmonak voters. Some are registered in other communities. Others aren't registered at all or were cast by people who are convicted felons, Andrew said. Felons are not eligible to vote.

The absentee voters mainly were elders unable to ride a four-wheeler or get to the polling place. He delivered ballots to elders on Monday and stayed with them while they voted, then sealed the ballots in envelopes, he said.

"They said 'I'm not going to say 'yes' to alcohol,' " Andrew said.

With that, "it's going to be close," Andrew said. "We are going to be very cautious about this if it does pass."

Tuesday's vote was a redo after the Emmonak City Council decided to throw out the results of an Aug. 9 special election due to an irregularity in counting. In that election, questioned ballots were mixed in with regular ballots and couldn't be separated after the fact.

Emmonak is currently dry, with a ban on importation, possession and sales. Voters were asked whether to change the community's local option law to allow a city-owned liquor store.

In Kotzebue, the split in the preliminary count was 463 "no" votes opposing a change and supporting the continued operation of the city liquor store, with 204 "yes" votes to ban alcohol sales in the city.

The city government wants to keep the liquor store, which is generating revenues for a youth center, parks, a small boat harbor and city vehicles. The youth center and harbor were developed with a $3.5 million Wells Fargo loan being repaid with liquor store revenues.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.