The reason the village of Newtok in Western Alaska had no voting booths during this year’s primary election was that the booths were being held hostage in the Newtok tribal office, according to Josie Bahnke, the director of the Alaska Division of Elections.
In an email this week, Bahnke admitted that “AS 15.15.060 states that a booth should be available” along with ballot boxes, national flags, pens, pencils, ballots and the other accoutrements on election day, and conceded that didn’t happen in the remote, tundra village of 350 people some 500 miles west of Anchorage.
“Newtok changed their polling place this year from the Tribal Office to the new Readiness Center,” she wrote. “The chairperson would usually get the voting booths from where they are being stored but in this case, she was not able to access the four located in Newtok. Angelique has called and written the tribal council to inform them that the booths are state property and they need to be available for the election in November.”
Newtok is a tiny village with homes linked together with boardwalks.
The tribal government is in a bit of flux. A new tribal government was recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs four years ago, but it is still in federal court trying to get the old tribal government out of office. It appears the voting booths got caught up in the dispute.
“So, we should have a booth but the law also allows them to vote in a private place,” Bahnke said.”When a booth is not available or may be broken, this is what we advise our election workers to do in these cases.”
How many Newtok voters were actually offered a private place to vote is unclear. At least one voter (see photo above) was clearly voting in public with some help. The photo was taken by Mareesa Nicosia, a reporter for “The 74,” an East-Coast education-news website, who happened to be in Newtok for the primary.
Queried on whether people 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 meet the requirements of state law as explained by Bahnke:
“…At least one voting booth shall be furnished and not less than one voting booth or screen shall be furnished for each 100 votes or fractional part of 100 votes cast in the previous election. At every polling place, 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.
“…(but) 15.15.230 states (that) when the voter has qualified to vote, the election official shall give the voter an official ballot. The voter shall retire to a booth or private place to mark the ballot.”
How many people in Newtok went to the private place to vote is unknown. But most villagers elected paper ballots and could have done so, according to Bahnke.
“Sixty-four voters cast a ballot on election day,” she reported. “Fifty-seven voters chose paper ballots and seven voters, like the one shown in the photo, chose to vote on the TSX Voting Machine. Like all other precincts, Newtok has always been sent a TSX machine. Perhaps with the training they received this year and change in polling location, it’s the first year they were able to get it set up and working. Newtok had a 49.6 percent voter turnout.”
Statewide, voter turnout in the August primary was about 15 percent.
Life on the edge
Newtok is a former Alaska city. Incorporated in 1976, it disbanded in 1997 in favor of reforming as an Alaska Native tribal village. It is a community struggling to survive. There is no economic base, and the village has long been threatened by erosion due to the combination of permafrost melting and the Ninglick River rising. Both have been linked to global warming.
For about 20 years, the village has talked about moving, but has been unable to convince the government to spend the $130 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated a move will cost. For a village of about 350 people, that works out to about $370,000 per person.
With the move stalled by lack of funding, the Alaska Legislature in 2011 gave the Newtok Tribal Council $4 million to build the Mertarvik Evacuation Center to house people in the event of a flooding disaster. But as that project began the tribal problems erupted.
The then tribal leaders were ousted by tribal members who named new tribal leaders. The new tribal leaders went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assert their claim to control of the village. The BIA booted the old tribal leaders. The old council appealed. BIA rejected the appeal.
Construction on the evacuation center stalled. Disputes arose about how the money was being spent.
The old council pressed on with the view it remained in charge. The Interior Board of Indian Appeals was called in to moderate. It last August sided with the new council. The old council ignored that decision.
A federal judge was eventually asked to evict the old tribe from the council offices in Newtok. He in January told Alaska State Troopers to go to Newtok, which has no trooper post, and take charge.
A month later, the troopers, who’ve had a sometimes strained relationship with rural Alaska villages, said they weren’t going to be serving any eviction notices in Newtok.
And now state voting booths appear caught up in the dispute. Time will tell if the state can free them in time for the general election. Life can get very complicated in Alaska.
Correction: Mareesa Nicosia’s name was misspelled in the first version of this story.