By Iris Samuels
The Alaska board of elections on Friday certified the results of the Aug. 16 primary and special U.S. House elections, making official the victory of Democrat Mary Peltola, who will become the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat.
In the final tally of the 192,536 votes cast, Peltola had 40.2% of valid first-choice votes. Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin had 31.3% and Republican businessman Nick Begich III had 28.5%.
With no candidate crossing the 50% threshold in the first round of ballot counting, third-place candidate Begich was eliminated and his votes redistributed. Half of Begich’s votes went to fellow GOP candidate Palin. Nearly 29% of Begich supporters ranked Peltola second. A fifth of Begich voters did not rank a second-choice candidate.
Ultimately, Peltola won with 91,266 votes to Palin’s 86,026 votes, or 51.5% to 48.5% — a decisive 5,240-vote margin that translated to a three-point lead. Peltola’s swearing-in ceremony is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13.
The state board of elections certified the election results as planned on Friday afternoon despite the fact that ballots from several precincts had not been fully counted. The final vote tally does not include the second- and third-choice rankings from seven precincts, including Anvik, Grayling, Nightmute, Diomede, Hooper Bay, Teller and Kaktovik.
Ballots from small, rural precincts had been sent to the Juneau Division of Elections office by mail. Elections officials said only first-choice rankings in the special general election had been tallied before the ballots had been shipped to the Juneau office using business reply mail, relying on the U.S. Postal Service.
The rural precincts, where votes are hand-counted, did not have the necessary ballot scanning equipment needed to tally the second- and third-choice votes, prompting local election officials to send those ballots by mail to Juneau for scanning. But when the ballots from the seven rural precincts were still missing as of Friday afternoon, the state board of elections certified the results without fully counting them.
The precincts uncounted as of Thursday accounted for around 300 votes that would not have changed the special election results if fully counted.
Even if the missing ballots are delivered by mail in the coming days, they will not be added to the certified vote tally, Division of Elections spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said by email Friday.
Asked why the division decided to move forward with certification without waiting for the final ballots, Montemayor said that “there is no way to determine when this might occur” and there are “not enough ballots from these precincts to change the result of the election.”
State statutes allow the state review board to “accept results as transmitted on election night if materials are missing,” she added.
Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said Thursday that she planned to use express mail delivery in the November election to avoid a similar situation.
Responding to the division’s decision to proceed with certification, a spokesperson for the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said that “every vote is voice, and every voice matters.”
“The ACLU of Alaska is committed to ensuring that all votes cast by Alaskans are counted. We are fighting for that fundamental right in the courts currently. If voters discover their ballot was rejected or discounted, we encourage them to get in touch with us,” spokesperson Megan Edge wrote in an email.
Peltola is now set to serve out the remainder of Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term. Young held the seat for nearly five decades before his death in March, which prompted the special election.
A November election will determine who will hold the seat for the new two-year term that begins in January. In that race, Peltola will again face Palin and Begich, along with Libertarian Chris Bye. The four emerged as the winners of the open primary. Under Alaska’s new election laws, the top four vote-getters in the primary advance to a ranked choice general election.
In the primary, Peltola got 36.8% of the votes, Palin got 30.2% and Begich got 26.2%. In fourth place was Republican Tara Sweeney with 3.8% of votes, but she dropped out of the race, elevating Bye to the fourth place position with only 0.6%, or 1,189 votes.
In the U.S. Senate primary, candidates advancing to the general election are incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration Kelly Tshibaka, Democratic retired educator Pat Chesbro and a little-known Republican named Buzz Kelley.
In the final tally, Murkowski had just over 45% of votes; Tshibaka had 38.6%; Chesbro had 6.8%; and Kelley had 2.1%.
In the gubernatorial race, Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy got 40.4% of the vote. Democratic former lawmaker Les Gara was in second with 23.1% and independent former Gov. Bill Walker was in third with 22.8%. Five hundred and fifty votes separate Gara and Walker. In fourth place is Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce with 6.6%.
The elections also determine the general election candidates in 59 legislative races.
Candidates have until Monday at 5 p.m. to drop out of their respective races to avoid appearing on the November ballot.
A recount can be requested up until five days after certification, or Sept. 7. A lawsuit challenging election results can be filed up until ten days after certification, or Sept. 12.
Only 342 votes total were thrown out by election officials because voters filled out their ballot incorrectly, representing less than 0.2% of ballots, indicating to political observers that voter education efforts and a clear ballot design had contributed to a smooth first ranked choice election in Alaska.
The turnout of over 192,000 voters — or 32% of registered voters — was the highest turnout in an August election in Alaska since the 2014 primary, when 193,000 voters can their ballots for a 39% turnout rate.