Alaska's voting turnout puzzling

LESS THAN '04? Total isn't in yet but appears below expectations.

November 8, 2008 

Did a huge chunk of Alaska voters really stay home for what was likely the most exciting election in a generation?

That's what turnout numbers are suggesting, though absentee ballots are still arriving in the mail and, if coming from overseas, have until Nov. 19 to straggle in.

The reported turnout has prompted commentary in the progressive blogosphere questioning the validity of the results. And Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore, who usually works with Democrats, said Friday that "something smells fishy," though he said it was premature to suggest that the conduct of the election itself was suspect.

With 81,000 uncounted absentee and questioned ballots, some of which will be disqualified, the total vote cast so far is 305,281 -- 8,311 fewer than the last presidential election of 2004, which saw the largest turnout in Alaska history. That was the election where Alaska's selection of George Bush for a second term was a foregone conclusion, though there was an unusually hot Senate race between Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Four years later, the lead-in for the 2008 election was extraordinary:

• Unheard of participation in the Democratic caucuses and strong Republican interest in theirs as well.

• A huge registration drive by Democrats and supporters of Barack Obama that enrolled thousands of first-time voters.

• Obama's historic candidacy.

• Gov. Sarah Palin's unprecedented bid for vice president as an Alaskan and a woman.

• A race in which Republican Ted Stevens, a 40-year Senate veteran, was facing voters as a recent convicted felon against Anchorage's popular mayor, Mark Begich, a Democrat.

• A Congressional race in which Republican Don Young, in office almost as long as Stevens, was seeking re-election after a year in which he spent more than $1 million in legal fees defending against an FBI investigation of corruption involving the oil-field services company Veco Corp. Young's opponent, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, had been filmed on the state House floor in 2006 demanding an end to Veco's corrupt practices weeks before the FBI investigation became known. The news clip played over and over as legislators and then Stevens were indicted and convicted, boosting Berkowitz's status.

"Everyone had a reason to vote," said Shannyn Moore, whose blog on one of the most popular liberal Web sites in the country, the Huffington Post, suggested the Alaska election was "stolen."

"Then people were what, listening to the news and couldn't pull away from their TVs to go vote at the last minute?"

Even conservatives appeared to be short counted, Moore said. The latest tally showed that the McCain-Palin ticket had almost 55,000 fewer votes than Bush-Cheney in 2004, she said.

Moore's blog, posted Thursday, has already been reposted or commented upon around the Internet. But even Democratic Party officials are saying she's jumping the gun.

"Nobody is charging 'shady,' " said Bethany Lesser, spokeswoman for the Alaska Democratic Party. But she said she's also confused about why more Republicans didn't support Palin, let alone Democrats coming out for Obama, Begich and Berkowitz.

"When I look at that vote, where are the people who are her people?" Lesser said.

While Democrats were charged up by Obama's candidacy and volunteered to help in Alaska, some of that effort was redirected after Palin's nomination, when it became obvious that Alaska would vote strongly Republican for president. Lesser said that Obama volunteers in Alaska spent time telephoning voters in swing states like North Carolina and Ohio rather than spend all their time getting out the vote in Alaska.

One volunteer, Jane Burri, said she was asked to address postcards to swing state voters in between registering Alaskans to vote while she attended an Obama rally in Anchorage in October.

"I remember I wrote, 'It's a really cold day in Alaska but we're sitting out there, writing to you, because we need your help,' " Burri said. She wrote that Alaska, with only three electoral votes, didn't amount to much, "but your vote counts."

Moore, the Anchorage pollster, had predicted a victory for Begich and Berkowitz, as did David Dittman, who usually polls for Republicans.

Moore said he's seen anecdotal evidence of both strong support for Democrats, and also low turnout at the polls, so he's waiting for the final count before reaching any conclusions.

Still, with the increase in registration and population since 2004, the total vote this year should have been around 330,000 to 340,000 had it been just an ordinary election, Moore said

"Given that interest in this election could not, under any circumstances, have ever been greater this year than it was in other years, it's almost inconceivable to imagine that the number of votes cast would drop" from 2004, he said. "It smells to me like you had a really, really, really weird turnout where all the Palin mothers and all the Ted Stevens supporters came flooding en masse out of the woodwork to make a point, and the Dems somehow sat on their hands and enjoyed the presidential news as it filtered up from the Lower 48 through the day."

Dittman says that seems to have been what happened, though it probably wasn't Democratic Party members who stayed home -- rather independents who may have been leaning that way because of the corruption charges against Young and Stevens.

Polls published just before the election that suggested strong victories for Begich and Berkowitz, plus cold weather and warnings of long lines at polling places, might have suppressed turnout, Dittman said.

"They didn't see any reasons to endure," he said.

McHugh Pierre, a spokesman for the Republican Party, said Republicans also had reason to not show up.

"A lot of people were torn: How do I morally vote for someone who is guilty of seven felonies?" he said, referring to Stevens' conviction a week before the election. "They don't show up to vote."

Director Gail Fenumiai of the Alaska Division of Elections said someone sent her Moore's blog, but she hadn't had a chance to read it -- she's too busy organizing the effort to count the absentee ballots and the review panels that will look at the questioned ballots. She urged patience before making a judgment on the election process.

"People just need to wait until the last ballot is counted," Fenumiai said.


Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.

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