Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Palin leads the special election, but wave of rejected ballots raise questions
The biggest surprise from the special election results were just how many ballots were rejected by the Division of Elections and where those ballots are coming from.
Good evening, Alaska!
In this edition: The results are mostly in, and Sarah Palin is at the top of the list of the special election. The most surprising thing about the whole thing, to me, is that people are surprised by the result but, hey, now we get to start to game out how a ranked-choice election might play out. What’s more surprising, though, is that the rejected ballot status is about five times higher than the last primary election with some districts—which happen to have higher concentrations of non-English speakers—have much, much higher rates of rejected ballots.
Current mood: 📊
Sarah Palin leads the pack
The first results are in in Alaska’s 48-person special election to fill the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s congressional seat. As of 10 p.m. Saturday, the latest results cover 108,981 ballots and pretty solidly cement the four-candidate slate for the special election that will be Alaska’s first-ever ranked-choice election on Aug. 16.
Here’s where the pack stands as of now:
Sarah Palin (R) - 29.77%
Nick Begich (R) - 19.31%
Al Gross (I) - 12.47%
Mary Peltola (D) - 7.45%
Tara Sweeney (R) - 5.25%
Santa Claus (I) - 4.47%
Jeff Lowenfels (I) - 3.86%
Christopher Constant (D) - 3.5%
John Coghill (R) - 2.53%
Josh Revak (R) - 2.42%
The most surprising thing about the results is just how surprised everyone is that former Governor Sarah Palin not only finished in the top four but did so with a comfortable lead on everyone else. It’s a result that ought to serve as a reminder that President Donald Trump’s approval rate in Alaska has hardly budged from the 40% to 45% range in the last few years, a reminder that the cloistered social media worlds we live in are just that. But as I wrote in the last edition of this newsletter, the conservative side of the ticket has been far more focused—with Begich being the establishment’s choice and Palin being the far-right’s choice—than the progressive side that had about six different candidates vying for party support (and none really getting it). Still, as my partner in podcasting crime, Pat Race, pointed out on Twitter, the results show that Republican candidates collectively sucked up about 60% of the vote—which is in line with historic results for primary elections—and at least under a traditional system would put either Begich or Palin in a strong spot to win.
That said, the race isn’t fully settled yet—there’s at least another 30,000 ballots to be counted—and the next stage will be completely unprecedented for Alaska. Just what happens in the ranked-choice general election will be prime for wild speculation and no one will really know how it plays out until it plays out. How does support from these 48 candidates coalesce around the final four? How do those votes disperse through stages of the ranked-choice system? How well-informed are voters going to be about the whole system and do they vote strategically?
One thing I’ve seen in polling so far is that voters don’t neatly disperse into the nearest political candidate—polling in the gubernatorial election, for example, suggests Republican Gov. Dunleavy and independent former Gov. Bill Walker both see pretty significant bumps when Democratic candidate Les Gara is eliminated from a hypothetical race—so it’s particularly important for candidates to not take second- and third-place rankings for granted.
Anyway, there’s plenty more time to wildly speculate on the race and there’s something else dominating my attention today:
4,830 Rejected ballots
The state has nearly 140,000 ballots in hand and has rejected 4,830 by-mail ballots per the latest statistics released by the Division of Elections. For past reference, 1,036 by-mail ballots were rejected in the 2020 primary. The big question is why.
While I saw some talk about this being about signature verification issues, the State of Alaska does not currently have any sort of signature verification process on the books (nor does it have any form of ballot curing on the books, either) so it wouldn’t be rejecting anyone because their signature doesn’t match what’s on file (like Anchorage does). Nor can the problem be chalked up to the reforms contained in Ballot Measure 2, which didn’t touch the by-mail ballot requirements. Instead, these rejections are because voters didn’t include any number of the required identifiers for their votes to be counted: A signature, a personal identifier, a witness signature or a postmark by election day.
Confusion over this issue could certainly be chalked up to it being the state’s first-ever by-mail election and the fact that the witness signature requirement is back in place after it was put on hold for the 2020 election.
However, it wouldn’t explain the glaring disparities in rejection rates across the state.
Alaska Public Media reporter Wesley Early pointed out that the highest rejection rate is in the Bethel house district along with several other rural districts. Of the 2,049 ballots returned to the Division of Elections in the Bethel district, 356 were rejected. Rejection rates are similarly high in other rural districts. The Nome/Bering Straits district coming in at a 15.2% rejection rate while the North Slope and Bristol Bay districts come in around 12% apiece.
The rejection rates are high in several Anchorage-area districts, but the Mountain View district led the way with highest rejection rate of any urban district at 9.01%.
Parsing out exactly why these districts had far higher rejection numbers than the rest of the state will take time, but at first blush it’s hard to ignore that these districts also have some of the highest concentrations of non-English speakers in Alaska. Those five districts alone account for 23.5% of ALL rejected ballots. If you exclude them from the statewide count, the state’s rejection rate drops from about 3.5% of all by-mail ballots to 2.8% of all by-mail ballots.
Whatever the problem is with the instructions on the by-mail ballots, the state clearly has to do better to educate voters about the requirements for voters to ensure their ballots are counted. There will always be problems but when those problems sure look like an unequitable trend, the alarm bells should be ringing.
In the big picture, this by-mail election is a one-time thing necessitated by a lack of resources and the tight turnaround of holding a special election to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term. It’s unlikely that we’ll see such eye-popping numbers at the next election, which will be in the normal format, but that doesn’t mean everything will be fixed for everyone.