FAIRBANKS — Jeremy Johnson went to college to get a degree in biology, but a perfectly timed internship in the Capitol in Juneau diverted him toward local and state politics.
“I ended up taking a lower-level political economy course that I had previously put off taking, and somebody came into class and said, ‘Hey we’ve got this internship in Juneau to work in the Capitol’. It was college credits and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not super happy doing the biology thing anymore so I might as well apply,’” Johnson said. “So, I went down to Juneau and did that work for a representative out of Anchorage, and I had a great time. I loved it. So then, when I came back, I was like, ‘OK, see you, wildlife biology, it’s been fun.’”
Years later, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Johnson works as the Fairbanks regional elections supervisor for the Alaska Division of Elections.
“When I was done, I wasn’t really sure what to do with political science. I didn’t want to teach. I have no desire to run for office. I don’t want to go into law. But then, I was able to get into elections work and I was hooked,” Johnson said.
Johnson previously worked with the state for the Division of Community and Regional Affairs, which also involved interacting with city and tribal governments and advising communities in rural Alaska.
“I worked with those communities on elections, so I had those 9 years of election experience on the municipal level,” Johnson said.
During his time there, Johnson was offered the position he now holds at the Division of Elections.
Johnson is in charge of 90 precincts, only 40 of which are in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The other 50 are in more rural areas, many of which are only accessible by air. This complicates things sometimes, Johnson noted.
“So we have to fly all the equipment and supplies and ballots out to the village precincts,” Johnson said. “One of the biggest challenges is finding precinct workers, available one or two days every other year to work at voting locations.”
The other challenge is finding workers who are bilingual in English and Gwich’in, the Alaska Native language spoken in Interior Alaska.
“Part of the requirement is having what is called a bilingual outreach worker and a bilingual poll worker, somebody that’s there on Election Day that speaks the local Native language and then someone who’s available weeks ahead of time to do all the outreach, making announcements,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, however, challenges are just opportunities to improve the way things work. That’s why his favorite day of work is Election Day.
“I think the best part is also the most stressful part, which is Election Day,” Johnson said. “That’s when everything happens. It’s like you do all of this prep work for months leading up to one day every other year, hoping that people come out and vote. And it’s fun and exciting to see what type of problems and issues come up because those are opportunities to troubleshoot and fix things.”
Working with the Fairbanks regional office has an element of home for Johnson as well.
“I grew up here. I went from Wood River Elementary, to Ryan Middle School, to West Valley High School,” Johnson said.
While he left briefly to attend a year of college in Wisconsin, he came back almost immediately.
“After only two years in the Lower 48, I decided Alaska was better,” Johnson said. “I love Fairbanks. My family is from here. I love the summers. It’ll always be home.”
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