June 16

By Iris Samuels

Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, independent Al Gross and Democrat Mary Peltola solidified their leads in the race to advance to August’s special general election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, according to an updated ballot count Wednesday.

By Wednesday evening, officials had counted around 133,000 ballots. Additional updates were expected Wednesday night. Another count is expected Friday, with a final count Tuesday and a goal of certifying the election results June 25.

The top four vote-getters in the 48-candidate special primary will advance to the special general election on Aug. 16. The outcome of that election will determine who will serve out the last few months of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s two-year term. Young died unexpectedly in March after 49 years in office.

Another election to fill the two year year term is scheduled in November, with an August primary.

Palin, in her first campaign since resigning as Alaska governor in 2009, is in the lead with 28.3% of the vote so far. Begich, a businessman and member of a prominent family of Democrats, has 19.3% of the vote. Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2020 with the Democratic Party’s endorsement, is in third with 12.8% of the vote. Peltola, a former state lawmaker on leave from her job in fisheries management, is in fourth with 8.7% of the vote.

Republican Tara Sweeney, an Alaska Native leader who’s held high ranking jobs at the U.S. Interior Department and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is in fifth with 5.5% of the vote. Santa Claus, a progressive independent North Pole city council member, is in sixth with 4.5% of the vote.

Palin, Begich and Gross had already appeared certain to advance to the general election according to results released Saturday. But the fourth place was previously less certain, with some wondering if Sweeney could overtake Peltola. Results released Wednesday increased the likelihood that Peltola, with a 4,300-vote edge over Sweeney, would advance to the general election.

“I felt like the second batch of tallies would trend with the first batch but they are trending even better for my campaign,” Peltola said. “I’m very pumped about it.”

Peltola contracted COVID-19 while campaigning in Juneau last week. She tested positive for the virus and has been isolating in Anchorage. She said she hopes to travel to home in Bethel later this week, and will resume campaigning in Anchorage once election results are certified.

“I am definitely not motivated to get out there and act like it’s a done deal,” Peltola said. “I still think it’s too early to celebrate.”

In a statement released Wednesday evening, Sweeney appeared to concede the primary race but did not say whether she would remain in the running for the two-year term.

“My goal was to get into the top four in the special election. Based on the release of returns from the Division of Elections, it looks like I will fall just short. In the coming days I will be meeting with my campaign team and supporters to determine next steps for the regular election,” said Sweeney, who ran as a moderate Republican.

Sixth place candidate Claus — born Thomas O’Connor — said Wednesday he still hadn’t given up on the possibility of advancing to the general election.

“I’m happy for Mary but I’m going to hang in there because we have two more vote counts to go,” said Claus, who campaigned on children’s welfare issues. “I think the results might change.”

The count of Anchorage-area ballots is still lagging behind counting in other regions. Election officials counted Anchorage-area votes received by June 8, while most other areas counted ballots received by June 11. The Division of Elections will count all ballots postmarked by June 11 and received by June 21.

The four front-runners are also running in the regular November election to fill the U.S. House seat for a full two-year term that will begin in January. The primary for that race, which currently includes 31 candidates, will be held on the same day as the special general election, Aug. 16.

“We have two August races to think about,” Jones said.

According to figures released Saturday, the state rejected 4.852 of the nearly 140,00 ballots it had received by then, or around 3.5%. That percentage is similar to the number of absentee ballots rejected in previous years, but the overall number is much higher because this election was held almost entirely by-mail, with far more voters using absentee ballots. And in some regions of the state where English is not the primary language spoken in many homes, the ballot rejection rate was significantly higher.

That includes some rural, Indigenous voting districts — in the Southwest Alaska hub town of Bethel, where Peltola is from, 17% of ballots were rejected.

“This is not a surprise,” Peltola said. “In Alaska, we take our summers very seriously. That does leave a ton of time and attention for things like learning about a brand new ballot system.”

In a letter written by Alaska Senate Democrats to Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, they raised concern over the ballot rejection rates in some regions, including Nome and the surrounding area — where the rejection rate was 15% — and the Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, where the rejection rate was 9%.

The senators called the statistics “staggering and unacceptable” and said they are “seeking an immediate explanation of the reasons for the rejections and how the division plans to ensure such failures in the voting process never happen again.”

Division of Elections spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said the division has not reviewed the letter and has no response at this time to the concerns raised in it.

“These numbers, if verified, mean Alaska Natives and other minorities and residents from less affluent areas have been denied their right to vote,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, in a statement. “Vote by mail works, but only if implemented so that all citizens have a chance for their vote to be counted.”