About 1 in 8 rural Alaska ballots have been rejected in special primary, raising red flags with lawmakers

The ballot for the U.S. House special election. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

A group of state lawmakers is raising red flags about the number of ballots rejected in the special U.S. House primary.

Ballots are still being tallied but, so far, about 4% of the roughly 155,000 ballots received statewide have been rejected. That’s double the rejection rate from the 2020 primary.

“These huge number of rejected ballots are occurring predominantly in rural Alaska, huge Native populations and in low-income areas of Alaska,” said Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski. He’s among a half-dozen Alaska Senate Democrats demanding answers from the Division of Elections about why so many ballots weren’t counted.

The ballots are for who will replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young. Ballot counting started over the weekend. By Wednesday evening, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich III, Al Gross and Mary Peltola were the top four candidates. The number of ballots rejected totaled 6,205.

The rejection percentage varies starkly by region. In areas near Bethel, it’s the highest, at around 17%. That means about 1 in every 6 ballots were rejected — with the votes not counted. The rejection rate is above 10% in the Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik area, as well as around Nome and Bristol Bay. Across rural Alaska, the rejection rate is roughly 1 in 8.

That’s compared to about 4% so far in Anchorage.

In the letter to Division of Elections officials on Tuesday, Wielechowski and the other senators asked for an explanation about what they described as a “breakdown of our election system and the democratic process for those citizens whose votes were not counted.”

“It’s really imperative for Division of Elections to get a handle on this,” Wielechowski said in an interview Thursday. “Figure out what the problem is, and either figure out a way to educate the voters, or remove these unnecessary bureaucratic barriers that are being placed that are making it difficult for low-income and Native voters to vote.”

Other signers of the letter were Anchorage Sens. Tom Begich and Elvi Gray-Jackson, Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl, Fairbanks Sen. Scott Kawasaki and Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin who represents most Northern Alaska communities.

Division of Elections officials said they’ll have data on why the ballots were rejected after the election is certified on June 25. They declined to comment on the senators’ letter.

Wielechowski said he hasn’t gotten answers yet from the division either, but he thinks the issue is likely the witness signature requirement on the ballots. The requirement was in place for the 2020 statewide election for absentee ballots, but a superior court judge ruled that was unconstitutional.

Wielechowski described the witness signature requirement for this election as a “bureaucratic roadblock.”

“You have a signature requirement, but the Division of Elections has no way to verify the signatures,” he said. “Then you have a witness requirement, but the Division of Elections doesn’t verify the signature of the witness, and doesn’t even verify that the witness lives in Alaska, or is even a real person.”

Wielechowski said one potential solution to this problem is through a process called ballot curing. In 24 states, officials will notify residents if there is an issue with their ballot and allow them to make any needed changes before counting it. Currently, in Alaska, the state will notify someone by mail if their ballot is rejected, 10 days after the election is certified.

“That’s something I think the Division of Elections needs to look into,” Wielechowski said. “I know in the Legislature, we had legislation to allow ballot cure. Unfortunately it didn’t pass. But I’m curious if the Division of Elections has the emergency regulatory authority to just enact that on its own. We’re talking about a fundamental right — one of the most fundamental rights that any person has in a democracy is the right to vote.”

Sen. Olson thinks the state also needs to put more resources toward outreach in Native communities, where residents are less connected and many speak a language other than English.

“I think there was only one announcement I heard on the radio out here in Golovin trying to get people out to vote,” Olson said.

The high rate of rural ballot rejections is also drawing criticism from advocacy nonprofit Native Peoples Action. In a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and the Legislature, the group outlined several requests to solve the issue, including an explanation for the high rejection rate, allowing for ballot curing and a “special hearing on the failures of this by-mail election.”

“By rejecting an astounding number of special election primary ballots, the State of Alaska is silencing the voices of our people who turn out to vote, many who are already facing increased barriers to voting access,” said Kendra Kloster, executive director of Native Peoples Action. “We call on Alaska’s leadership to heed the call from Alaskans: take action to ensure that when our people turn out to vote that all our voices are heard and our votes are counted. Without a voting system that will ensure all Alaskan voices are counted and heard, the State of Alaska is failing our people.”

Historically, elections in Alaska can be close, with Rep. Bryce Edgmon’s election in 2006 being decided by a coin toss and Rep. Bart LeBon winning his election by one vote in 2018, a matter that reached the Alaska Supreme Court. Wielechowski said those razor-thin margins also underscore the need to ensure that every Alaska ballot is counted.

With three more statewide elections set to happen this year, Wielechowski said if the Division of Elections can’t address this issue, a special session of the Legislature may be required.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from a letter from the advocacy nonprofit Native Peoples Action.

Alaska Public Media

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