After Mertarvik primary election troubles, officials work to regain trust

A white man with grey hair and a grey suit
Sen. Kevin Meyer addresses the Alaska Senate, Feb. 10, 2014. (Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

In September, KYUK reported that about 130 residents living in the Western Alaska village of Mertarvik did not receive a primary election ballot.

After hearing the news, state lawmakers wrote letters to election officials asking how they would fix things for the general election.

The Alaska Division of Elections director and Alaska’s lieutenant governor shared their response to these questions with KYUK.

Here is a review of everything that went wrong during Newtok’s primary:

First, local election workers backed out of the job two weeks before the election, according to the state elections division.

The division said it waited until it found new workers to send the ballots and election materials to Newtok, which happened a week later. As a result, those materials did not make it to the community before the primary election.

To exacerbate the problem, the division said it did not know the village had split into another site across the river, Mertarvik, until a week before the primary.

RELATED: After 20-year wait, Newtok residents leave home to pioneer Mertarvik

After KYUK reported this failing, state Sens. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Donny Olson, D-Golovin, wrote a letter to the elections division requesting a “detailed plan with steps the Division of Elections will take to re-establish confidence for the upcoming general election.”

On Oct. 13, nine state Representatives, including Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, wrote a similar letter to Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, asking “what assurances can you provide to our Alaskan Native communities that they will not be forgotten and neglected during the upcoming general election?”

In an interview with KYUK, Meyer, along with Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, tried to address state lawmaker concerns.

“I would hope that everybody does trust our elections because we did work the Newtok issue very, very hard,” Meyer said.

Read Alaska Public Media’s coverage of the 2020 election including candidate profiles, debates, and issues analysis.

Meyer and Fenumiai said that the issues from Newtok’s primary have been addressed.

Fenumiai said that the division has now secured voting officials in Newtok and Mertarvik for the general election. She said that early voting in Mertarvik was scheduled to start Tuesday, Oct. 20, and the polling location in Newtok will be open on Election Day. She said that for other communities where the division currently doesn’t have election workers, it will send ballots and election materials to the tribal or city offices anyway, instead of waiting to secure a worker.

“And if at the last minute we’re able to find a worker if we don’t have one, then the materials are there and ready for the workers to get a precinct set up so voting can commence,” Fenumiai said.

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

As for not knowing about people living in Mertarvik, Fenumiai said that other state departments that know more about the status of relocation projects need to communicate better.

“The (Alaska) Department of Commerce, the (Alaska) Division of Community and Regional Affairs, might be privy to this information, and it would be good for them to provide the (Alaska) Division of Elections with this information,” Fenumiai said.

But the larger problem of not being able to staff elections in rural areas has not been addressed entirely.

Meyer said there are four precincts that currently do not have voting officials for Election Day: Sleetmute, Clark’s Point, Wainwright, and Deering. He said that the division sent letters warning residents in those communities.

“A letter just saying, ‘Hey, look, we’re not able to find anybody to help us. If you know of anybody, please let us know,’” Meyer said. “But, just in case, maybe you should request an absentee ballot.”

Meyer said that an absentee ballot application was enclosed in every letter.

In a response to one of the state lawmakers, Fenumiai wrote that the challenge with hiring more than 2,000 election workers in more 400 precincts is not unique to this year’s election. Workers oftentimes back out of the job, sometimes at the last minute, she wrote.

“This is not meant to be a complaint,” she wrote. “This is a crucial part of our duties, but also the hardest because we are dealing with people (who can change their minds).”

Fenumiai said that the challenge with finding election workers has persisted, despite an increase to workers’ pay earlier this year by $5 an hour. The increase was partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Fenumiai said that the division does everything it can to recruit workers through various channels.

“We outreach to, like the lieutenant governor said, the local government offices, the tribal offices, the larger Native corporations, state legislators, and none of that has proven to be very successful,” Fenumiai said.

But the state officials’ response to state lawmakers’ concerns did not satisfy Sen. Olson. He said he requested a detailed plan for the general election, not a list of excuses for why the primary did not go well. Olson said he acknowledges the difficulty of hiring in rural Alaska, but he said that it was not a valid excuse for not offering in-person voting.

“If you can’t find somebody, and then I think you got to send somebody out there to go and conduct the elections,” Olson said. “That’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to vote, and every vote is counted.”

Fenumiai said that the division only has 28 full-time employees, and that insufficient housing and a lack of same-day air service to rural communities would not permit workers to be flown in and out. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has added extra complications this year. Meyer suggested that state lawmakers could take a more active role in recruiting election workers.

“I would recommend that the legislators send an email out or a newsletter out, which typically most of them do, and just say, ‘Hey, look, (Alaska) Division of Elections needs help,” Meyer said.

The lieutenant governor emphasized that, in order to have a successful election, the division can’t do it alone.