One election down, three to go: Here’s what’s next in Alaska’s US House race

Gloved hands holding a box full of mail-in ballots
Ballot envelopes from the special primary election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat are prepared to be opened at the Alaska Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Monday. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

Alaska’s special primary Election Day was Saturday, and officials have tallied more than 130,000 votes.

But thousands more votes remain uncounted in the race to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young. And an array of other questions are still swirling about how the special primary election will play out, and what the general election will look like.

The Daily News spoke with candidates, elections officials and political insiders to help make sense of what’s happened, and what comes next.

What’s this election for, again? And which one is next?

U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican, held Alaska’s sole seat in Congress for 49 years before he died suddenly in March while traveling home from Washington, D.C.

That set off a special election to select a new member of Congress to finish Young’s two-year term, which expires in January. It’s the first election held under a new system that Alaskans approved in 2020, with four candidates advancing from a pick-one nonpartisan primary, and a general election in which voters are asked to rank the four candidates in order of preference.

The special primary, where voters chose one of 48 candidates on the ballot, was Saturday; the special general, where voters will rank the top four candidates from the primary, is set for Aug. 16.

Simultaneously, two more elections — a regular primary and general — are scheduled to elect Alaska’s member of Congress for the next full two-year term, which starts in January. The regular primary election is scheduled for Aug. 16, on the same day and same ballot as the special general. That means voters will be asked to rank the four candidates in the special election, then pick one of 31 candidates in the regular primary.

The regular general election, where voters will rank the top four of the 31 candidates, is Nov. 8.

When will we know the final results from Saturday’s election?

By Wednesday evening, officials had counted nearly 134,000 ballots. Another count is expected Friday, with a final count Tuesday and a goal of certifying the election results June 25.

Ballots will still be counted as long as they were postmarked by Saturday and arrive by June 21.

The final count is set for June 21, and the state aims to certify the election and make the results official June 25.

Who’s up and who’s down?

Just four of the 48 candidates from the special primary will advance to the special general election in August. Right now, the top three candidates appear all but certain to move on: Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III, and independent Al Gross.

Democrat Mary Peltola currently sits in fourth place with 11,863 votes — a 4,379-vote edge over Republican Tara Sweeney, who’s in fifth. Peltola’s campaign manager has said she’s confident that result will hold when the state tallies the remaining uncounted ballots.

The top two from the primary, so far, are Republicans. What does that mean for the general election?

One quirk of ranked-choice voting — at least as it has played out in other places — is that it can incentivize like-minded candidates to coordinate. By endorsing each other, politically aligned candidates can try to maximize the number of voters who rank them second.

In previous elections, political parties would hold their own primary elections and nominate just one candidate for the general — making post-primary infighting relatively rare. But at least two Republicans appear set to advance to the special general election after Saturday’s nonpartisan primary: Former Gov. Palin leads with 28% of the vote while Begich has 19%, meaning that the two of them captured nearly half of all the votes counted in the primary so far.

Headshots of the four leading candidates
Clockwise from top left, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich III, Mary Peltola and Al Gross. (ADN staff photos)

Some Republicans think they should be working together, and that if they fight with each other, the GOP candidates risk alienating voters who might then choose to rank only one candidate instead of two.

“When you put the two of them together, they win,” said Mike Porcaro, a GOP media consultant and talk radio host. “If we had a traditional campaign, where people started going after each other, it doesn’t do either one of them any good.”

So far, though, neither Begich nor Palin seem to be heeding Porcaro’s advice. Begich, in a phone interview Monday, said he’s heard nothing from Palin that makes him think the two can work together.

“Sarah’s strategy has been to not talk to the media, not talk to Republicans, not talk to Alaskans. Her strategy is hide in her basement as much as possible,” he said. “In terms of holding hands with an opponent, there’s been no hand to hold. She’s MIA.”

Palin responded to a question about her approach to ranked choice voting in a statement that made no mention of Begich or other opponents.

“My focus is on uniting our state to push back against the wild spending spree policies in Washington that have forced families to have to choose between a full tank of gas and a full refrigerator of groceries,” Palin’s statement said. “Washington is broken and I will fight back on behalf of all Alaskans.”

The top Democrat in the race right now, Mary Peltola, only won 9% of primary votes. Do left-leaning candidates stand a chance?

It depends who you ask.

Conservatives were quick to point out that Republican candidates captured some 60% of the votes counted Saturday, while Democrats captured some 15%. Independent Al Gross, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2020 with the Democratic Party’s endorsement — though he has run afoul of the party this year — got 12% more.

But insiders aligned with Democrats argue that GOP wins in August and November are far from certain, and say that Saturday’s results were more encouraging than they appear, for several reasons.

Among them: Peltola, the leading Democrat, was out-fundraised nearly eight-to-one by Palin and nearly 15-to-one by Begich, while Palin only won about four times as many votes, and Begich won less than three times as many. Those trends could change if Democratic donors have just one candidate to support in the special general election, down from six in the primary.

“Across the board, the money was on the Republican side,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, a political consultant whose firm is working for Peltola’s campaign. “I think Mary’s going to increase fundraising significantly, and it will be very interesting to see what she’s able to do once she’s able to achieve fundraising parity with her opponents.”

Heckendorn made two other points. Turnout in primary elections, he said, tends to skew lower and more conservative compared to general elections. And some of the people who voted for lower-performing Republicans, like Sweeney and former Fairbanks state Sen. John Coghill, might be open to flipping to a Democratic candidate, Heckendorn said.

Lindsay Kavanaugh, the Alaska Democratic Party’s executive director, made one more argument: Some voters in the by-mail special primary election sent their ballots in early, and might have changed their minds as the campaign played out and they learned more about other candidates.

“I do believe there’s a path to victory,” she said.

Who voted for Palin?

It’s no secret that many members of Alaska’s Republican establishment dislike Palin, who came to power more than a decade ago after she exposed a longtime GOP operative doing party business at a politically appointed job at an obscure state agency.

Some of the significant number of left-leaning supporters Palin garnered by taking on state GOP leaders later soured on her during her unsuccessful 2008 vice presidential bid, and after her decision to resign as governor in 2009.

So, if not GOP insiders, who were the 32,371 people who voted for Palin in Saturday’s count? Alaska lacks robust exit polling infrastructure that would produce hard data on her supporters’ demographics.

One theory is that Palin’s endorsement by Republican former President Donald Trump was a big draw. But few voters interviewed Saturday by the Daily News cited the former president as a factor.

One consistent theme repeated by politics insiders — many of them Palin critics — is that a diminishing number of voters actually remember her history in the state and her conduct as a vice presidential candidate and governor. And the data bears that out: Slightly more than half of Alaska voters, as of April, only registered to vote after Election Day in 2008, according to a review conducted on the Daily News’ behalf by the analytics firm TargetSmart.

How many ballots got rejected?

Two elections workers going through ballot envelopes.
Election officials Charles Pannone and Jane Moe Newby prepare ballot envelopes from the special primary election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House to be opened at the Division of Elections office in Anchorage on Monday. (Photo by Bill Roth/ADN)

One big question about Saturday’s special primary was how many ballots would be rejected.

Because the election was almost entirely by-mail, far more Alaska voters were using absentee ballots. And those absentee ballots require voters to take specific steps for election officials to validate and count them: Voters have to include a unique “identifier” on their ballot envelope, like their birth date or driver’s license number, as well as a signature from a witness. The witness signature requirement was waived in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s been reinstated this year.

In past primary elections, 5% or fewer of absentee ballots have been rejected. That rate tracks with this year’s data, which show that the state rejected 4,852 of the 139,340 ballots it received, or some 3.5% — though the overall number of rejected ballots was higher, because there were far more absentee ballots voted.

Some observers noted that a number of predominantly rural, Indigenous voting districts recorded significantly higher rates of rejections — as high as 17% in the district centered in the Southwest Alaska hub town of Bethel. But that rate also isn’t unprecedented: The voting district centered in the Western Alaska hub town of Nome saw 23%, or nine, of its 39 absentee ballots rejected in the 2016 primary.

State elections officials are not releasing a breakdown of how many absentee ballots were rejected for each of the different reasons for a rejection until after the counting process is finished. They did stress this week that the state does not use a signature verification process for voters or witnesses — so a signature not matching would not be a reason a ballot was invalidated this year.

There are 17 other reasons that a ballot could be rejected by law, said Tiffany Montemayor, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Elections. Those include insufficient witnessing, a missing voter signature or a missing identifier.

The state, unlike the city of Anchorage, lacks a procedure for voters to “cure” a mistake with their ballot. A change to that rule has been discussed by Alaska lawmakers but failed to pass into law this year.

This story was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.

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