2020 elections

Alaska’s Slow Ballot Count Adds to Senate Uncertainty

Senate candidate Al Gross still thinks he has a shot when mail ballots are finally counted. Photo: Michael Dinneen/AP/Shutterstock

As of this writing, on November 6, the whole world is impatiently awaiting a presidential election call for Joe Biden that has looked inevitable for a couple of days now. Much of the delay, as most of us have anticipated for months, stems from a record level of voting by mail, which takes longer to tabulate, in some cases (as in pivotal Pennsylvania) because state laws and procedures prevent or limit processing of such ballots prior to Election Day.

But it could be worse. The presidential election could hinge on the counting of mail ballots in Alaska, which won’t even begin until November 10. Here are the basic facts from the Anchorage Daily News earlier this week:

In part because of COVID-19, Alaskans voted in record numbers before Election Day. By the time polls opened Tuesday morning, 161,217 Alaskans had voted in advance at in-person polling stations or remotely by mail and fax. Only 37,955 of those votes are included in the Election Day total. The rest will be counted between Nov. 10 and Nov. 18, the deadline in state law.

Before the ballots are counted, Alaska’s absentee review boards must examine them by hand, checking signatures, dates, IDs and voter histories to ensure each ballot is legal. Though the review boards began working on Oct. 27, Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections, said the boards will not have all 122,000-plus ballots ready by Nov. 10 …

That means some ballots will be counted Nov. 10 and others on subsequent days, and there is no set schedule for results.

So the 172,000 Alaska votes for president and the U.S. Senate that were reported the day after the election won’t change until November 10 — but then they’ll keep shifting after that for some time (the state is accepting mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received up until November 13).

The large number of uncounted mail ballots, and the strong possibility they will skew heavily Democratic, is why the official election-callers haven’t projected Republicans the winners in the presidential, Senate, or U.S. House races, despite big GOP leads. Donald Trump and incumbent Republicans, Senator Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young, all have over 60 percent of the vote.

Dr. Al Gross, the independent Democratic-endorsed Senate candidate challenging Sullivan, thinks he still has a shot, according to the Daily News:

On Wednesday, Gross posted a video on social media saying that with more than 40% of votes yet to be counted, he still believes he will win his challenge to Sullivan….

Most of those ballots are absentee, which Gross will do well with, said campaign manager David Keith. Keith declined to say how many of those votes the campaign believes Gross needs.

“There’s a range of numbers that I’m not going to divulge,” Keith said. “There are some very solid paths in the absentee vote for Al Gross to come out ahead of Dan.”

If that were to happen, the odds of Democrats getting control of the Senate would go up (though they’d still need to win at least one January runoff in Georgia). More interestingly, given the apparent straight-ticket voting in Alaska, it might mean Joe Biden could pick off the state’s three electoral votes as well, which would be quite a shock.

Immediate consequences aside, you might wonder why Alaska counts mail ballots so very slowly. Local reporter Nathaniel Herz notes official sources differ in answering that question:

State officials said the wait stems from Alaska’s huge size and complicated logistics: It has polling places in dozens of villages with no road access. Officials said they also need the extra week to finish the time-consuming process of logging the names of each Alaskan who voted on Election Day, then cross-referencing with absentee ballots to make sure no one’s votes are counted twice …

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who co-chairs the House State Affairs Committee with jurisdiction over elections, said he plans to review Alaska’s counting process once the dust settles on this year’s tally.

“Looking at the other states in the country, I do question: Why is it that we in Alaska don’t count our absentees that have arrived prior to Election Day, on Election Day?” Kreiss-Tomkins said in a phone interview. “It’s a question I’ve never asked before because in the past, absentees were not such a massive part of the vote total.”

It seems Alaska uses a particularly cumbersome system for ensuring that those casting mail ballots don’t also vote in person. But it may just be a matter of a high tolerance for local quirkiness, as Dermit Cole suggests:

On Nov. 12, 2008, the Juneau Empire reported that Alaska election officials were struggling to explain why the vote count was so much slower than any other state a week after the general election. “I wouldn’t say we’re slow,” Gail Fenumiai, director of the Elections Division, told reporter Pat Forgey. “Statutorily we have until the 15th day after the election…”

“I don’t know how other states count (ballots),” she said. “I don’t have any idea how they handle things…”

On Thursday, the Anchorage Daily News posted a story that contained nearly the exact same comment from Fenumiai about not knowing how they do it Outside.

It’s yet another example supporting my argument that it’s time to nationalize election administration in this country. Quirkiness in federal elections just isn’t much fun anymore.

Alaska’s Slow Ballot Count Adds to Senate Uncertainty