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Alaska’s majority-Native districts had uneven voter turnout in 2020, analysis finds

Yereth Rosen
Alaska Beacon
Campaign signs in Nome, seen on Oct. 2, 2020, urge votes for a slate of Democratic candidates. The Nome Census Area had a 50% turnout in the 2020 election, close to average for majority-Native districts around the nation but lagging the overall U.S. turnout of 67 percent, according to an analysis by the National Congress of American Indians’ Policy Research Center.

This story was originally published by The Alaska Beacon.

Among all the nation’s majority-Native voting districts, one in Alaska had the highest turnout in the last presidential election, while others in Alaska had some of the lowest turnouts, according to an analysis by the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center.

The majority Yup’ik Yukon-Kuskokwim Census Area of southwestern Alaska posted a 75% turnout rate in 2020, topping those of all county or county equivalents where Indigenous residents comprise at least half of the voting-age population, according to the analysis.

In contrast, the Northwest Arctic Borough, where 83.8% of voting-age residents are Indigenous, had a turnout of only 38% in the 2020 election, near the bottom among the nation’s majority-Native counties or county equivalents. The Lake and Peninsula Borough, with 43% turnout, and Kusilvak Census Area, with 44% turnout, were also near the bottom.

The average voter turnout for the 28 analyzed majority-Native regions across the nation was 53%, according to the Policy Research Center’s findings, which were presented at the NCAI midyear convention held this week in Anchorage.

That average lagged the 67% national voter turnout, the analysis noted. The majority-Native region with the second-highest 2020 voter turnout was Arizona’s Apache County, at 72%, according to the analysis, while the lowest voter turnout was in South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota County, at 37%

The percentages are only estimates that rely on multiple sources of data, as states and local governments “do not collect voter data by race and ethnicity,” the analysis cautioned. Still, “these rates may better inform voter mobilization rates in these regions of the country, as well as provide evidence to continues barriers to voting on reservations and in locations with high numbers of AI/ANs,” it said, referring to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

To Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community and a longtime Yup’ik leader, the biggest impediment to boostinged voting in Alaska’s rural, majority-Native areas is skepticism about whether those votes matter since “urban centers are where the most people are.”

“I think the major issue that I notice is, ‘Does my vote count? Because urban areas have the biggest population, why should I vote?’” he said Thursday, at the close of the National Congress of American Indians midyear conference in Anchorage.

Another issue is ensuring that voting information and instructions are readily accessible to rural voters, including those for whom Yup’ik is the primary language. “I think we need to continuously educate the poll workers,” he said.

The advancement of Yup’ik candidate Mary Peltola as one of the top candidates in Alaska’s ranked-choice U.S. House election, Williams said, should stimulate more Native voting interest. Peltola, a former state legislator, has valuable political experience, he said. “I think she knows how to do the campaigns and how to get the votes,” he said.

Nationally, increased Native voting participation is a priority of the Biden administration, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in her address to the conference.

“This administration believes that voting is the most fundamental American right, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that every American, whether you agree with us or disagree with us, who wants to vote is able to vote,” Haaland said Wednesday by teleconference.

Yereth Rosen | Alaska Beacon