Add what appears to be at least one illegal polling place to the list of irregularities surrounding the rural Alaska vote in the 49th state’s 2016 primary election.
KTOO.org, the wesbsite for the Juneau public radio and television station, ran a photo of it earlier this week but apparently didn’t notice the election violation appearing in the photo below which is written a description saying a “poll watcher helps (emphasis added) Newtok resident Bosco John, 27, vote….”
John and the poll watcher are standing in plain view in what appears to be an office in the Western Alaskan village of about 350 people.
Alaska law is very specific about how polling places should be set up so as to maintain secret ballots.
“At every polling place,” the law says, “at least one-half of the voting booths used shall be not less than six feet in height, enclosed on three sides, and provided with a curtain extending from the top of the voting booth to within approximately 30 inches of the floor. The curtain of the voting booth must conceal the voter while voting.”
The Newtok photo was taken by Mareesa Nicosia, a reporter for “The 74.” The 74, which can be found at 74million.org, runs what Wikipedia says is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan news website focusing on education issues in the United States.”
Nicosia was in Newtok to do a story and video about the kids in a boardwalk village now threatened by the rising waters of the Ningliq River and the Bering Sea just to the west.
Queried on whether people truly were “voting without voting booths,” she emailed that “they were indeed voting at the one voting machine without any real booth. There were some shields around the actual ballot — I think you can kind of see that in the photo.”
The shields would not appear to meet the state standard for guaranteeing the privacy necessary for casting the “secret ballot” used in Alaska elections. The secret ballot is an idea Americans stole from the Australians and instituted in the U.S. in the late 1800s to clean up corrupt U.S. elections.
“It brought voting indoors, contained it in compartments, and made it safer, quieter, more orderly, more like an assembly line. Many kinds of corruption, violence, and intimidation ended,” Jill Lepore wrote in a 2008 history of voting that appeared in “The New Yorker.”
The argument against the secret ballot has always been that it makes voting too troublesome and thus discourages voters. The secret ballot “coincided with a dramatic drop in turnout rates, from nearly 80 percent of the eligible population in 1896—which had been typical for the era—to 65 percent eight years later,” Sasha Issenberg wrote in a 2012 plea to “Abolish the Secret Ballot” in “The Atlantic.” “They have never recovered, falling to around 50 percent in 1996.”
Newtok would appear to make a strong case for Issenberg. Statewide, only about 15 percent of Alaskans cast ballots in the primary this year. In Newtok, the state reported turnout topped 100 percent. The Alaska Division of Elections official tally lists 227 ballots cast by 215 registered voters in Newtok.
Dig down a little deeper, however, into the actual votes given candidates, it would appear only about 90 Newtok residents voted with about 60 percent of them picking the Democrat ballot. That primary featured a hotly contested competition between incumbent Democrat Sen. Bob Herron and challenger Zach Fansler. Fansler won in Newtok as he did in the district.There is no general election challenger.
Dueling Democrats were duking it out this year in remote districts along the Bering Sea where some election oddities await explanation as the state winds it way through the first statewide election under new Director of Elections Josie Bahnke. The former Nome city manager replaced Gail Fenumiai a little over a year ago.
Newtok is a village that has undergone more than a bit of political turmoil in the past year. In January, a federal judged ruled that Andy T. Patrick, Joseph Tommy and Stanley Tom can no longer bills themselves as village tribal leaders. The trio represented the Native American Village of Newtok which was battling with the Newtok Village Council for control of the community.
The village is on Nelson Island, which fits so tightly into the coast of Western Alaska that it appears a part of the mainland. The Native Yupiks of the region moved between seasonal camps for thousands of years up until the mid 1900s. A group of them coalesced around Newtok when the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built there in 1958.
A community of only about 100 then, it grew and prospered but is now fighting for it’s life against slow but relentlessly rising waters. It has become a poster community for global-warming problems. National media reporters, like Nicosia, have become regular village visitors. Alana Semuels wrote a lengthy story about the village in The Atlantic a year ago. It focused on the problems surrounding the village’s effort to find an estimated $130 million needed to finance a move to higher ground.
Newtok is still struggling to find the money. Most of Western Alaska is still struggling. It has no economy and no jobs and government, which has been part of the support system from people there for years, is now struggling to pay its bills.
But Newtok now has a digital voting machine, but apparently no voting booth or booths.