Last Tuesday, Alaska voters went to the polls to weigh in on a tight Senate campaign between incumbent Sen. Mark Begich and challenger Dan Sullivan, as well as on several other controversial ballot issues. The votes of rural regions that make a big difference in Alaska elections, especially in the form of absentee and early ballots, have yet to be fully counted.
News media reports there are still tens of thousands of uncounted Alaska ballots, enough to sway both the senatorial and gubernatorial races.
In rural areas, Sen. Begich made a campaign to not only support his own platform, but also to help rural Alaskans register to vote. As ballots are still being counted, this could help close the gap between Sen. Begich and Sullivan. Of the 200 early voting locations, 161 were in rural Alaska, and so far, these areas have been heavily supporting him. In Bering Strait/Norton Sound (House District 39), more than 70 percent of the vote went to Sen. Begich. In the Kuskokwim Delta (House District 38), 70 percent of Bethel voters supported Begich.
Perhaps this is why the Begich campaign will not concede yet. Sen. Begich may best know the power of rural Alaska in elections. In 2008, Begich defeated Sen. Ted Stevens after overcoming a deficit of 3,000 votes as rural and absentee ballots were counted.
Not only does he know about rural power and help rural Alaskans to vote, but he has also made strong statements about listening to the voice of rural villages. On his website, Sen. Begich writes that his goal is to listen and be an equal partner with rural Alaska to “work together to address issues throughout our most remote villages and communities.”
On the other side, Senate candidate Dan Sullivan would like the race to be over. His campaign has been putting pressure on the media to call the race. That would mean discounting the voices of thousands of Alaskans, and would especially affect those from rural Alaska, where polling places are not well known for their ease of access and fast returns. Given how much money was spent in this election on getting people to vote for him, it’s odd those votes no longer seem to matter. His push to get the vote called is a clear disregard for rural Alaskans and their voice.
Rural Alaska’s voice is essential to our state, and this voice needs to be heard — regardless of whether such a voice calls out for Begich or Sullivan. These remote hubs and communities are diverse, and home to numerous Native villages whose vote helps to preserve indigenous rights such as subsistence hunting and autonomy. Choosing to call an election before votes from rural Alaska are counted is an act of repression. It prevents thousands of voters from fully participating in the democratic process. There is much more to calling an election than who gets a seat in Washington, D.C.
If candidates like Dan Sullivan ask for races to be called before all of the votes are counted, rural Alaskans will lose their voice. The democratic process will have failed them. This might deter voters from returning to the polls in the future, and Alaska might not only fall below the national average, but it would be doing so by denying voting privileges to rural Alaskans by not counting those votes.
This is an issue of empowerment. Citizen participation means individuals must participate in the decision-making process for institutions, programs and environmental factors that affect them. Counting all of the votes in Alaska ensures that citizen participation can take place, and people can have control over their lives and feel a sense of community. Organizational structures can help protect and promote rural citizen participation and voting rights. In Alaska, there needs to be safeguards so candidates do not concede until there is no question of the race results, until all votes are counted.
In a statement by First Alaskans Institute, Get Out the Native Vote, and ANCSA Regional Association, the point was made that 18 percent of votes come from the uncounted ballots. The organizations point out that it is unfair and dismissive to call an election early, a sadly familiar scenario. Voting officials and politicians must be held accountable, and respect the effort made by Native and rural voters to participate in elections. They must wait until “rural Alaska sings.”
Sen. Begich could potentially gain enough votes to win — there is a lot at stake for him, and so it is understandable for him not to concede. There is also a lot at stake for Dan Sullivan, and by advocating for the race to be called, he is alienating a population that he will need to support him in the future: rural Alaskans.