Reading the paper, watching TV or listening to the radio in the months leading up to Tuesday’s primary election, one would have been hard pressed to forget about the oil tax issue raised by Ballot Measure 1. But looking over turnout statistics from across the state, one would never guess that voters had an opportunity to weigh in on one of the fundamental issues confronting Alaska. For most people, it seems that despite the presence of a measure that significantly affected the means by which the state collects the vast majority of its general fund tax revenue, it was just another election.
Compared to past primaries, numbers look as though they’ll be in line with elections where similar races were on the ballot. In 2010, the last year in which a Senate seat and the governor’s chair were both in play, about 35 percent of Alaska’s registered voters turned out for the primary. This year, about 31.5 percent of Alaskan voters visited the polls on election day, a figure which will grow slightly once absentee and questioned ballots are added to the tally. Still, Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai called the level of participation disappointing, and she’s right. An issue of this magnitude should have seen a majority of Alaska voters take a trip to the voting booth, not a third of them.
Low voter turnout for primary elections has been a near-constant issue for the state, with about 30 percent of Alaskan participating in recent years. The highest-ever turnout for an Alaska primary was 1982, when 57.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots. That’s more in line with participation in general elections these days.
In fairness, sometimes there’s not much draw for the average voter to come out for a primary, as much of what’s at stake pertains to selecting party candidates for the general election, and a substantial percentage of Alaskans aren’t aligned with any party. But in a year like this one, when a vitally important topic was at issue on the primary ballot, it’s harder to understand why more voters didn’t bother to show up.
Low turnout seems likely to be a reality in October, as well, in the Interior’s borough and city municipal elections. Last year the borough’s municipal races had 14.4 percent voter participation, and in 2012, 23.5 percent of borough voters filled out ballots in a set of races that included the borough mayor’s seat. This year, with no executive offices up for election and several candidates running unopposed, it looks likely that voter participation will be similarly dismal — though we’re certainly hoping to be proven wrong about that.
For all of our worry about the generally poor state of civic engagement in the primary election, there are certainly some places that outperformed the state average, and they’re worthy of mention. Some neighborhoods on the outskirts of Fairbanks, like the Ester and Goldstream No. 2 precincts, had turnout around 45 percent. The village of Minto came in at a respectable 44 percent. Nenana and Arctic Village were near 40 percent.
But overall, low participation in recent elections paints an uninspiring picture of residents’ commitment to weighing in on issues that affect us all. As legacy oil fields like Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk come inexorably to the twilight of their productiveness, it will take a concerted effort by all Alaskans to chart a healthy course for the state — not just the 30-odd percent who decide it’s worth showing up.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,