Voter turnout up from 2016, but still third-lowest

Alaskans came to the polls in earnest on Election Day, and according to figures from the Alaska Division of Elections, turnout has already beaten 2016 figures, even with thousands of absentee and questioned ballots still to be counted.

That good news is limited: Even with boosted turnout, the proportion of Alaskans participating in the primary is the third-lowest since 1976, when the state began tracking primary election turnout.

“Is turnout dropping? Are people getting more apathetic? Probably,” said pollster Ivan Moore, director of Alaska Survey Research.

He said he believes Alaskans — and Americans in general — are beginning to tune out of politics because the national scene has become “like watching a slow-motion car crash” caked with negativity.

“People are starting to hate this stuff. I know I am,” he said.

“I see more and more people turning off and just not paying attention to it anymore.”

According to figures posted early Wednesday morning, 18.2 percent of Alaska’s registered voters cast ballots through 8 p.m. Tuesday, when polls closed statewide. That’s already better than the turnout in the 2016 primary election, which had statewide turnout of 17.2 percent when the election was certified in September.

Turnout this year is lower than it was in 2014, when vast interest in the referendum on the oil tax cut known as Senate Bill 21 drove Alaskans to the primary polls. In that year, 39 percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots.

The highest primary turnout was in 1982, the year of two major ballot measures: One dealt with moving the state capital to Willow; the other was a referendum on a fish and game law that divided rural and urban voters. Fully 57.7 percent of Alaskans voted in the primary that year.

This year, with no controversial ballot measures to drive turnout and only one party with a contested primary for governor, Alaskans largely missed the vote. Only the 2000 and 2016 primaries had lower turnout. Even with the addition of questioned and absentee ballots, turnout is not likely to top the 24.6 percent turnout of 1998, which is now the fourth-lowest.

Matt Larkin, a pollster for Dittman Research in Anchorage, said that in the last couple of election cycles, “I definitely think it’s been ballot measures” that drove turnout.

In 2014, Alaskans also had a competitive U.S. Senate race to consider in the primary, something that aided turnout.

Historically, he said, primary election turnouts have been lower than general election turnout, particularly in presidential election years.

“There are a lot of voters for regular elections who don’t vote in primary elections,” he said. “They know they’re going to vote for the Republican, they know they’re going to vote for the Democrat … but they don’t really engage in the process of who that candidate is going to be.”

Larkin also pointed out that the state’s recent Permanent Fund Dividend voter program may have lowered voter turnout proportionally.

For example, two years ago, before the program’s start, the state had 515,912 registered voters on Aug. 3. This year, on that same date, the state had 567,403 registered voters, even though Alaska’s population has declined in the past two years.

It’s not clear how many of the newly registered voters cast ballots on Tuesday, but the program was designed to reach people who otherwise might not have an interest in elections.

If this many people had cast ballots in 2016 instead of this year, turnout would have been closer to 20 percent, rather than 18 percent.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is a member of the state’s elections policy task force and was a candidate for lieutenant governor this year.

“It seems like the same people vote, and the same people don’t vote,” he said, regardless of registration.

“We can make it easier to register, but it doesn’t correspond to having more people going to the polls.”

In Anchorage, Evan Anderson is the public outreach coordinator for The Alaska Center Education Fund, which performs nonpartisan voter engagement and tries to encourage people to vote.

He said his organization is still trying to figure out why people did or didn’t vote on Tuesday. He wonders if it’s linked to the difference between Anchorage’s municipal elections and statewide elections. Anchorage now conducts its elections by mail. The state doesn’t.

“I heard a lot of confusion from voters who expected a ballot by mail and didn’t get one,” he said.

He also noticed a difference between places with a competitive primary and places without one. In House District 20, which had three Democratic candidates, he found voters generally more informed and engaged than voters in House District 19, which had no competitive House race.

Moore said the state might more closely examine the Anchorage municipal election program, which seems to have boosted turnout there.

“Maybe the state needs to give thought to doing that,” he said.

“If voter participation is dropping, which it seems like it is, then the state needs to be working as hard as possible to make voting as easy as possible.”

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