On the final day of the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention Saturday, all candidates in statewide races took the stage to address convention-goers from all corners of the state, amid messages from Alaska Native leaders on the importance of voting in the election that is less than three weeks away.
Of the four gubernatorial candidates, three U.S. Senate candidates and four U.S. House candidates who spoke in forums about their policy positions and backgrounds, one in particular drew outsized reactions from the audience — Democrat Mary Peltola, who in August won a special election to replace Rep. Don Young in the U.S. House, becoming the first Alaska Native in Congress. It’s a title that has earned Peltola emotional tributes and rock-star treatment at the convention, as she runs again for a full two-year term.
“It’s a juggernaut for sure,” said Michelle Sparck, who runs a nonpartisan Get Out the Native Vote initiative, speaking about Peltola’s candidacy.
“You can taste it, how excited everybody is to see her in this role, and we want to support her,” Sparck said. “But a lot of people also don’t realize that it’s not over. She’s only serving out a term. She has her own race to run in November. So we’re trying to make everybody realize that and take that enthusiasm and invest it into showing up to vote in the November midterms.”
Some of Peltola’s supporters didn’t cast their ballots for her in June — when she faced 47 other candidates in a special primary — or August, when her name appeared twice, once for the ranked-choice special general election and once for the pick-one regular primary.
“It was a very passive experience, because maybe they didn’t know they knew her. But they know her. So everybody’s putting those pieces together the lightbulbs are going off,” Sparck said. “They’re like. ‘Oh yeah, we’ve gotta turn out, we’ve got to vote for her.”
When Peltola’s name was announced ahead of the U.S. House candidate forum, it was met with cheers from the crowd, many of whom brandished cutouts of Peltola’s face distributed by her campaign. But Peltola says that enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate to votes.
“I think that a lot of the folks who are enthusiastic about my candidacy are not typically enthusiastic voters. They don’t necessarily have the follow-through. There might be the intent,” Peltola said Saturday.
Peltola said that the girlfriend of one of her stepsons, who lives with her and her husband in Anchorage, was not registered to vote until recently. The 21-year-old had not voted for Peltola in both the June special primary or the August special election.
“I share this story not to embarrass her, but to illustrate that we know people who aren’t registered and we assume they are, and they may even be living in our own home,” Peltola said.
Registering to vote in time is not the only hurdle that rural Alaska Native voters face. Anton McParland, Peltola’s campaign manager, said that in light of the high ballot rejection rate in June’s by-mail special primary election, Peltola’s campaign has been encouraging voters to vote in-person.
“In those spaces where we saw so many ballots turned away, we’ve spent a very large amount of time trying to help people understand the in-person voting alternatives, because I think we just weren’t confident that we could overcome some of that disinformation about that process and didn’t want to risk people’s votes not being counted,” McParland said.
Early in-person voting begins Monday across Alaska, with dozens of locations opening across the state.
After Peltola’s keynote address on the first day of the convention, a stream of Native leaders tried to translate the excitement for Peltola into votes.
“When you go back home, make sure on Election Day, you make a call to someone, your friends, to show up at the polls,” said state Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat. “Show this nation, show this state and show your community that we are here and we’re going to come out and vote.”
Sparck, of the Get Out the Native Vote initiative, has spent months working with the Alaska Division of Elections, postal workers and local leaders to ensure that they have access to voting in the November election. In the process, she has learned of some voters who have no in-person voting options in their community and must fly to nearby towns to vote; she has connected communities of less than 100 residents with election officials to make sure they can vote in-person.
“The rejection rate (for mail-in ballots) is just very disheartening, and that can turn people off — why bother?” Sparck said. So she is working community by community to make sure all villages, no matter how small, have election officials — “looking for those needles in the haystack.”
“That seems like a lot of effort for just a tiny amount of voters, but so many Alaska races are so close, that these really make a difference. I’m thinking if we could even just get a 10% increase for rural and for tribal communities … What a difference we’re going to make. We can counter the overwhelming road system advantages,” Sparck said.
In some rural districts, voter turnout was below 20% in the August special election that Peltola won. In some districts along the road system, turnout came close to 40%. Sparck estimates that if there was parity across the state, Alaska Native voters could make up a quarter of votes statewide.
The Division of Elections this year has overseen the rejections of thousands of mail-in ballots — including one in six from a Western Alaska state House district — and left around 300 rural ballots uncounted after a mail delay, when the division determined those ballots would not change the outcome of the election. In rural communities where voting depends on a single trained election worker, unexpected developments on Election Day can mean the polling place never opens. In an effort to reach rural voters, for whom English is often a second language, the Division of Elections has translated voter pamphlets into several Native languages and dialects.
“It takes a village to make voting in the elections happen. The Division is almost a passive agency in administering elections,” Sparck said. “I’m realizing with more gravity that we’re the ones responsible for making it happen at the local level.”
Peltola said that for her part, her campaign has tried to use the AFN convention to distribute information about the election to communities where mail and delivery services are costly or unreliable.
“We definitely are doing everything in our power to connect with people to make sure that they are getting materials to encourage people to vote. And it’s not just for me, but just the act of voting. We’re encouraging people to vote for whoever they want,” Peltola said.
Still, during the Saturday forum, at least one of the other candidates recognized that Peltola seemed to have her own gravitational pull.
“I’ve been involved in politics for 20 years in Alaska from local level on up, but this is the toughest campaign, because of her,” said Sarah Palin, the Republican former governor and reality TV star running against Peltola. “We are in Mary’s house, and I know that.”
As the two candidates stood outside in a hallway after their forum was over and posed for pictures with convention-goers, a long line formed of people eager to speak with Peltola — some toting the campaign swag her staffers were distributing downstairs. Palin took several pictures before leaving the convention. Peltola remained with her supporters until she was escorted to a side room for private meetings.
Two floors below in the Dena’ina Center, Palin’s words were in action. At a table manned by Peltola’s campaign staffers, a steady stream of people stopped to pick up “pro-Mary” T-shirts and stickers. A few tables away, Chevak artist Earl Atchak sat next to a doll he had made depicting Peltola, wearing a miniature kuspuk and mukluks like the ones she wore when she was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
“She eats the exact same food that I eat. I have to support somebody who’s a regular human being,” said Atchak, who has in previous years made a doll depicting U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Both Murkowski and Peltola were endorsed by the AFN delegates on Saturday.
Asked if he thinks the doll might convince others to vote for Peltola, Atchak said it’s not needed.
“I don’t need to convince another human being to vote for Mary Peltola. Nobody needs convincing.”