“Go Togiak! It’s just noon, and 120 out of 500 have voted!” Rose Wassillie’s voice came crackling over VHF radio in Togiak, a Native village in southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. “Let’s make those numbers climb!” Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and backed by a vast expanse of tundra and rugged snowy mountains, Togiak uses VHF open-mic transmissions to connect both internally and with the rest of the world.
After months of intense media speculation about the Alaska Native vote and its potential to swing the state’s important races—for governor, U.S. Senator and the state’s lone Congressional seat—the Native turnout did not disappoint. Data from the surrounding Bristol Bay region filtered in over the course of the day. By the time the election was winding down, 60 percent of Togiak’s 500 registered voters had cast ballots, while turnout was 100 percent or close to it in some smaller villages, said Grace Mulipola, of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.
Since Togiak’s polls opened at 7 a.m., a steady stream of voters had filed into the election office. Most were speakers of Yup’ik—the language most commonly heard around town—and many wanted either the newly available Yup’ik ballot or an interpreter to go into the voting booth with them, as state law allows.
The translated ballot and interpreters, if desired, were big drivers of turnout, said tribal administrator Clara Martin. “In the past, I never felt my vote counted. It seemed that people who didn’t know anything about our way of life were making decisions for us. Now, the new Yup’ik ballot tells us our vote means something. Someone out there is listening to us.”
Election involvement will continue to increase, Martin said. “We can look forward to even greater turnout in years to come.”
The election in Alaska has been hard fought, and voters around the state have said the barrage of political advertising that went with has worn them out. “I’m glad it’s over!” said Traditional Council of Togiak president Jimmy Coopchiak, as tribal members gathered in the evening for a potluck to celebrate their participation in the election.
However, they may not get the election’s results for awhile, said Coopchiak. Alaska doesn’t count absentee ballots—likely to be a large proportion of votes cast this year—until a week after the polls close, he explained. And the state has a history of close elections. In 2008, 15 days elapsed before Republican Senator Ted Stevens conceded his one-percentage-point loss to Democratic challenger Mark Begich. In 2006, a tied election meant the state representative from the southwestern region was chosen via a coin toss.
Still, today has been a satisfying one for the people of Togiak. The meal they put together included stewed seal, herring roe on kelp, baked and dried salmon, agutak (a chilled mixed-berry dessert) and other Native dishes, made of ingredients hunted and gathered from the surrounding land and water.
When this article was published, the “yes” votes on a much desired ballot measure to protect the Bristol Bay fishery, which is the source of many of these traditional foods, had a commanding lead of 66 percent, as compared to 34 percent against. On the other hand, the local favorite Senatorial candidate, Mark Begich, was trailing. However, as Begich said to his supporters at 10 pm, “Rural Alaska has not yet been counted! Those are our people.”
Said Martin: “We live in very exciting times.”
This story was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.