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Bethel wants to consolidate its polling locations, but that's up to the state

Bethel citizens cast their ballots at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska on Nov. 3, 2020.
Katie Basile
Bethel citizens cast their ballots at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska on Nov. 3, 2020.

As the largest town in Western Alaska, with over 6,000 residents, Bethel has operated two polling locations for years. But it’s also a small town, and one of the polling locations is a lot easier to access: the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. The other polling location is at the Lower Kuskokwim School District offices. Election Day, which is a workday, can make the building and surrounding parking situation rather congested.

So Bethel City Council and the local elections board are asking the Alaska Division of Elections to consolidate the two polling locations into one, at the cultural center.

Bethel Mayor Mark Springer spoke in favor of consolidating polling locations at a March 26 council meeting. “It's going to make things a lot easier for everybody, much better parking,” Springer said. “And who knows, maybe the coffee cart will be open on Election Day.”

“I think this is an important item, because it does take out the crowd from the school district,” Springer said. “And looking into the future a little bit, once [the new] Ayaprun school is opened up they're going to be shuttering and probably tearing down the central office anyway. So this is kind of preemptive to that.”

Bethel City Clerk Lori Strickler told council members that the two precincts would still exist, but that they would be under the same roof. Precincts are a subdivision of electoral districts, so won’t change until the next time the state redraws district boundaries.

“We don't know exactly what it'll look like for the voters, we will likely have two rooms. Precinct Number One voters will still have to make sure that their ballot goes into the Precinct One box, and Precinct Two would have to do the same,” Strickler explained.

Strickler said that local election officials have ideas for how to keep things separate, including using color-coded secrecy sleeves and ballot boxes to keep voting organized. And there will be more meetings to work out the details if the state grants Bethel’s request.

Beyond alleviating parking issues, Strickler said that there are other potential benefits to consolidating polling locations, including more election officials to aid voters. Some voters speak Yup’ik as a first language.

“In recent years, we've only been able to identify one confirmed or approved translator for our elections,” Strickler said. “We've had a number of outreach attempts, but only one confirmed translator. And as opposed to having them move to the different precincts, they'd be available for both precincts on Election Day.”

After a push to solicit public feedback on the change, Bethel officials say they haven’t heard anything negative from voters. If the consolidation goes into effect, they say they’ll work on a city resolution to make local transit system rides free on Election Day, to help get voters from anywhere in town to the polls.

Strickler has submitted a request to the Alaska Division of Elections, which has the power to decide whether or not Bethel will be able to consolidate the precincts under one roof. It’s not yet clear whether a change could happen before the next election, which is Primary Election Day, Aug. 20.

Bethel’s municipal elections are held the first Tuesday of October each year, and Alaska holds state elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November on even-numbered years, coinciding with federal Election Day.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.