By Kirsten Swann
How do you bring more people to the polls?
For weeks leading up to the 2015 Anchorage municipal regular election, there were campaign mailers, candidate profiles published in local newspapers and televised debates. School board members made appearances at community council meetings to stump for the latest bond packages, and billboard-sized campaign signs materialized at every major intersection in town.
Despite all the activity, only around 55,000 Anchorage voters cast a ballot. It took fewer than 35,000 votes to send Ethan Berkowitz and Amy Demboski into a run-off race for mayor, with another election set to take place May 5.
The 24 percent voter turnout rate is par for the course, according to data from the Municipal Clerk’s Office. Year after year, tens of thousands of local voters never make a trip to the polls. Thousands more aren’t even registered in the first place. In some neighborhoods, voter turnout regularly dips below 10 percent for local elections.
Fighting the tide of voter apathy is a spirited group of Alaskans united in their push to promote political participation.
They come from many cultures and backgrounds and demographic groups. To boost voter turnout, they’re getting creative with free food and bike rides and rallies; social media activism and early voting initiatives.
“Bike the Vote,” organized via Facebook, encourages people to meet at a Spenard picnic area and ride to the polls at the Loussac Library for early voting April 25. A group of volunteers with Yo Voto, Yo Cuento are working to find ways to engage and educate local Latino voters. Then there’s Turn Up The Vote AK, an effort spearheaded by community leader George Martinez.
Low turnout isn’t a new thing, Martinez said. Neither are turnout discrepancies along ethnic and economic lines. But fixing those problems will take a new way of thinking.
“A lot of strategies have come and gone, but I think that first we at least have to have a base,” he said. “(We) have to have a good approach.”
A grassroots organizer and political science professor at Pace University, Martinez first came to Anchorage more than seven years ago to participate in a hip-hop empowerment summit at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In 2014, he helped orchestrate a Turn Up the Vote AK Democracy Festival, which drew about 700 people to the Alaska Airlines Center one Sunday in early November.
More than half of all Alaska voters cast a ballot that election cycle, according to the Alaska Division of Elections.
“(It) was a pretty good number,” Martinez said.
His work is based around a few core ideas: Issues—not political parties—drive people to the ballot box. Cultural and historical relevance is important, he said, and he believes the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this year can help spur interest in the polls. Political literacy and education are also key, Martinez said. Making a meaningful change in voter turnout rates relies on year-round commitment to civic engagement.
“Driving engagement in a real broad way, a creative way, is a better outcome, because people want to solve problems,” Martinez said.
Around Anchorage, there’s no shortage of ideas for boosting voter turnout. An unscientific survey produced suggestions ranging from public voting workshops and a door-to-door reminder campaign to informational signs along roadways and year-round voter education.
Miriam Aarons, a corporate communications professional, community leader and member of the local advocacy group We Are Anchorage, said Anchorage’s wealth of “social capital” could be part of the solution.
“People in our community truly care about making our city a better place to live, raise families and work,” she wrote in an email about three weeks before the May run-off. “Unfortunately, as is evidenced by the low voter turnout during the recent regular municipal election, community members must remember that voting is as important as showing you care on a personal level.”
Martinez, also a member of We Are Anchorage, said people need to feel “skin in the game” and make the connection between the voting booth and the elected officials who call the shots.
“I don’t know anyone who’s willing to let an anonymous stranger speak on their behalf,” Martinez said.
It’s a consistent theme among various local political groups. Indra Arriaga, a regular Presscontributor and one of the leaders of the recently formed Yo Voto, Yo Cuento—“I Vote, I Count”—said its members are motivated by a desire to have a voice in their community.
“What we all have in common is that we’re all Latino, and we all believe that the starting point is education,” Arriaga said.
The diverse group includes college students, organizers, a baker and people who hold jobs for the State of Alaska. A few weeks before the May run-off, they came together to shoot a public service announcement featuring answers to the question, “Why do you vote?”
The answers were personal and varied, Arriaga said. People talked about having a choice, self-empowerment and exercising a role in their community.
The group also collected candidate questionnaires published by local media outlets, translated the answers into Spanish and printed an informational brochure to help inform prospective voters about candidates’ stances on various topics.
Arriaga said they’re working to put together other events in the weeks leading up to the May election. The group has talked about organizing pickups for people who need a ride to the polls for early voting, or setting up a taco truck at the library and offering free food to people who come to cast a ballot.
Ultimately, the vision stretches far beyond May 5.
“The hope that everyone around the table has expressed is to see this group grow into something else,” Arriaga said.
Turn Up the Vote AK is finalizing its own pre-election plans. Martinez, working with a cadre of other community organizations, wants to organize a bike ride, poll pickups and some kind of celebration on the eve of the run-off. The initiative also launched its own SMS notification system: People can text @OurAlaska to 23559 to receive election information via text.
Even after the election, Martinez said, the work is just getting started. Boosting voter turnout in 2016, 2017, 2018 and beyond starts with community engagement today.
“We’re either going to be reactionary, or we’re going to know those things, we’re going to work with each other’s histories and we’re going to build resilient, proactive, solution-oriented communities,” he said.