Juneau voters head to the polls in Alaska’s first-ever ranked choice general election

Raeanne Holmes, Communications Coordinator at Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska holds “I voted” stickers at Sacred Grounds Coffee — part of a joint initiative to increase the native vote by offering free food and coffee to individuals who voted in the Nov. 8th Election in Juneau Alaska. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Before 9 a.m., deep in the Mendenhall Valley, precinct chair Jon Estes tended to groggy voters at the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church polling place. 

He oversees the opening and closing of ballot locations. He also helps make sure everyone coming in to vote has what they need. 

Estes said it seems like most voters learned the ranked choice system during the August primary, but mistakes and questions have still come up. This is Alaska’s first general election under the new election system.

“There have been a lot more what are called spoiled ballots, with people making errors on ranked choice voting,” Estes said.

When this happens, the ballots get ripped in half and set aside, with no identifying information attached. Then the voter can try again with a new ballot. 

Estes has been a poll worker for three elections now — the 2020 election, this summer’s primary and today’s. He said he thinks people have been more aware of election tensions this year due to national concerns about election safety and security. 

“That tension is nationwide,” Estes said. “But nobody to my knowledge has brought it into the precinct. And everybody here is very, very motivated and very enthusiastic about serving. I’m grateful for it.”

Karen Rehfeld supervises poll workers the Lynn Canal polling location, Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, Juneau Alaska, Nov. 8th 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Gwendolyn Clay was waiting in the lobby of the church while her mother voted. Typically, the family votes early together. This year, Clay voted on Election Day and called her mother to see if she still needed to vote, too. 

They had a hard time finding out which location was designated for her mother’s precinct. 

“The old voter registrations actually tell you the places, the actual address where you go, whereas now it just says your district on it,” Clay said. “And so that proved to be problematic.”

Clay said she asked where to go at the polling place where she voted. 

Voters can go to a different precinct than the one they’re designated to use, but they have to fill out a questioned ballot, according to poll workers. That’s a regular ballot that has to be reviewed for eligibility by the Questioned Review Board before being counted. 

Out at Auke Bay, the ferry terminal was full of voters instead of travelers Tuesday morning.

Karen Rehfeld is the precinct chair for this polling site. 

“We have such a beautiful place,” she said. “The sunrise was fabulous.”

She and her fellow election workers were at the polling places since before 7 a.m.

Rehfeld has worked elections for eight years. She said this polling place always has good turnout on Election Day, as people drive into work and then back home.

Downtown, Sacred Ground coffee shop gave away free drinks and special stickers to voters. 

“We don’t have fancy coffee where I’m from, so I was gonna get a pumpkin spice latte,” said Heather Douville with a laugh.

She’s visiting from Craig but still got to cast her vote. She stuck an “Aunties Vote” sticker to her jacket. 

Marianne Jacobs holds up her voter sticker at Sacred Grounds coffeehouse in Juneau. November 8, 2022. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Marianne Jacobs works for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She’s sporting an Xtratuf-themed voter sticker. She said she always votes.

“I normally endorse who the tribe and Sealaska endorses,” Jacobs said. “They’re interested in our causes.”

She said fisheries and the ferry system are important to her.

Cory Mann stopped by for a coffee. He said he wants to see solidarity in the Alaska Native vote.

“They could control any election that they want in Alaska. And it would be to everyone’s benefit,” he said.

Raeanne Holmes, with Tlingit & Haida, said the celebration is sponsored by Tlingit & Haida, Sealaska and Goldbelt. There’s a buffet of snacks and a selfie booth set up. 

Just a few steps away, Emily Kane started her day at 6 a.m. She is the precinct chair at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall.

“It’s been busy, been pretty steady all day,” she said.

She was checking in voters from other precincts — they received questioned ballots. Kane has been working polls for more than five years.

“I really believe in democracy. And this is where the power of the people resides. So I’m very avid about voting, and I want to be part of the solution,” she said.

Neighbors greeted each other quietly before grabbing their ballots and slipping behind the red, white and blue curtains to cast their vote.

Find election results on ktoo.org/elections as they become available. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Karen Rehfeld’s name. 

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