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Some rural votes were again left uncounted in Alaska’s statewide election

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Some rural votes were again left uncounted in Alaska’s statewide election

Dec 06, 2022 | 2:38 pm ET
By James Brooks
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Some rural votes were again left uncounted in Alaska’s statewide election
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Laraine Derr feeds ballots through a scanner on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, at the office of the Alaska Division of Elections in Juneau, Alaska. Derr was among elections workers counting ballots in Alaska's special U.S. House primary election. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Ballots from six rural Alaska villages were not fully counted in Alaska’s November elections, the Division of Elections said Friday. A division official said the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver them to the state election headquarters before the election was certified on Nov. 30.

“You’ll need to contact the USPS to find out why there were some that never arrived — as we were told from poll workers, everything had been mailed,” said Tiffany Montemayor, the division’s public relations manager, by email.

As a result, 259 voters in St. George, Levelock, Ambler, Kiana, Kobuk and Noorvik had their ballots only partially counted, the division said. 

“The Postal Service is aware of six canvas bags that arrived after the November 30th final deadline. We regret the issues caused by this incident and are reviewing the process with the Alaska Division of Elections to avoid any recurrence in future elections,” said James Boxrud, communications manager for the Postal Service’s WestPac Area.

Though the failed delivery did not change any election results, it adds to a record of rural-voting problems this year.

After the August special election for U.S. House, seven villages’ ballots failed to reach elections officials in time to be counted.

Also in August, two polling places failed to open as planned. In November, two other rural polling places opened late on Election Day.

In addition, a disproportionately large number of ballots from rural Alaska were rejected in the June by-mail special primary to fill the U.S. House seat left vacant by the death of Congressman Don Young.

“It’s not an awesome trend,” said Michelle Sparck of Get Out The Native Vote, a group that encourages voter participation in Alaska’s rural, predominantly Native, communities.

The problems caused by November’s missing ballots were exacerbated by the state’s implementation of the new ranked choice voting system.

At 131 of Alaska’s 401 voting precincts, ballots are counted by hand, with results telephoned to elections officials, who add them to the results and publish a preliminary report.

Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system uses a computerized sorting process to determine final winners in close races, which means each ballot must be scanned to get a final result.

In Maine, ranked choice ballots are trucked to the state capital for processing. Here, that isn’t possible, so elections officials arranged for them to be mailed to Juneau.

Alaskans for Better Elections is the nonpartisan nonprofit backing ranked choice voting in Alaska. Amanda Moser, chief strategy officer for the group, said the failure of all ballots to arrive on time is “unfortunate” because “these voters didn’t have the opportunity to have their maximum voice included.”

“Moving forward, really working with the Division of Elections and other statewide partners that are in this space, we need to find the best path in order to make sure that all Alaskans have the opportunity to have their full voice expressed in the election,” she said.

After the partial failure in August, elections officials paid to have the completed ballot packages sent by USPS Express Mail. 

As of Monday morning, the packages from the six villages still had not arrived in Juneau.

Asked whether elections officials have a new plan, Montemayor said that as of Friday, they did not but will look at other options in the upcoming year.

Last year, the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a bill that would allow the Division of Elections to mandate by-mail voting in small communities where hiring poll workers is difficult. That bill did not pass the Legislature.

Sparck said any solution that involves the U.S. Mail in rural Alaska needs to be reconsidered.

“We don’t do well by mail,” she said of rural Alaska voting, “whether it’s weather or postal service staffing issues or English as a second language disadvantages.”

“I can’t say that’s a better alternative,” she said.