Mertarvik residents didn’t get primary ballots. The state says it didn’t know people lived there.

A strip of river next to green land and neatly-arranged houses.
Mertarvik is a newly constructed village on Nelson Island that the village of Newtok is relocating to. July 16, 2020 in Mertarvik, Alaska. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

A mistake prevented residents of a Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community from being able to vote in Alaska’s primary election. The Alaska Division of Elections said that it didn’t know people were living in Mertarvik until a week before the election. The village has roughly 130 residents.

Newtok, where residents moved from, never received supplies for its election, resulting in only 17 people there voting in the primary.

The trouble with Newtok’s primary started with election officials who backed out of the job late. Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said that the state had secured two voting officials to work the primary election back in June. At that point, Newtok Tribal Administrator Andrew John wasn’t worried about the situation.

“I’m sitting there, ‘Okay, cool. Everything is going along. It’s like it’s supposed to be,’” John said.

On Aug. 5, two weeks before the primary election, one official quit, and the Division of Elections couldn’t get in contact with the other official. The tribe and the division scrambled to recruit and hire new voting officials, which they managed to do by Aug. 11, just one week before the primary. In these phone calls with the tribe and the new voting officials, Fenumiai said that they learned that people were living in Mertarvik for the first time. 

That remark raised eyebrows in Newtok. Over the past few decades, Newtok has been working closely with the Alaska Department of Commerce on the village’s move to Mertarvik. Tribal Administrator John said that the Division of Elections should have known the status of the relocation project.

“It’s no secret that departments within the State of Alaska don’t communicate effectively,” John said. 

In order to offer voting to residents living in Mertarvik, the Division of Elections planned to send one of the voting officials from Newtok to the new village with absentee ballots. On Aug. 11, the division’s Region IV office, located in Nome, sent the ballots and supplies to Newtok via priority shipping. This is where the whole operation really fell apart.

“Turns out that those materials never came,” John said.

There was a delay in shipping, which meant that there were no absentee ballots to take to Mertarvik. One resident who lives there, Lisa Charles, feels like she missed out on an opportunity to have her voice heard.

“I was sort of mad because I wanted to vote,” Charles said.

Quick thinking in Newtok allowed at least some residents to vote. Martha Simon was one of the voting officials who had taken the job a week prior. She printed out sample ballots that had been faxed ahead of time, and offered in-person voting in Newtok. Fenumiai said that state law allows for sample ballots to be used when official ballots are not available. Simon said she tried to encourage people to vote, but not many came.

“We went on the VHF every 15 minutes. We went on Facebook. We text everybody, tried to text everybody in the village to come and vote,” Simon said.

Fenumiai reported that 17 Newtok residents voted in the primary election. 

Following the mishap in Newtok, Fenumiai said that the division is making some changes. The reason the election supplies were sent only a week before the primary was because the division was waiting to secure voting officials. She said that next time the ballots supplies will be sent to the village ahead of time, regardless of the election worker situation. Fenumiai said that the plan for the upcoming general election is to provide in-person voting in Newtok and absentee in-person voting in Mertarvik. She also said that election workers are still needed in Newtok.