Alaska voter turnout for this year's election appears now on track to be the highest ever.
That's contrary to hand-wringing about why Alaskans didn't show up for this historic election, and even some speculation that ballots weren't being counted.
"I think people were premature to jump to conclusions that voter turnout was very low. It's apparent that a large number of people in this state chose to vote absentee versus in person on Election Day," said Gail Fenumiai, state elections division director.
The state will count the final absentee and questioned ballots Tuesday -- about 24,000 of them. Even if a third of the questioned ballots are disqualified, that will put the turnout above 320,000, the most Alaskans who have ever voted.
What's unusual this year is that nearly a third of the ballots weren't counted until after Election Day. That's because of the record number of Alaskans who chose to vote early and absentee.
Thousands of "early votes" weren't counted until after Election Day to give the state time to double-check and make sure people didn't vote twice. Democrats especially pushed people to vote early and absentee this year, trying to reduce the chance they wouldn't get around to it on Election Day. Also, there is a general trend of people preferring alternatives to the traditional Election Day trip to the polls.
Absentee voters used to mostly be people who were going to be out of town on Election Day, said Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore. But now people just do it out of convenience, he said.
The state elections division figures the final tally will show about 65 percent of the registered voters in Alaska cast a ballot this year. That is one percentage point lower than in the next highest turnout year in terms of actual voter numbers, 2004, an election in which 313,592 Alaskans cast ballots.
This year's turnout looked far smaller in the immediate aftermath of Election Day -- potentially lower than the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
That caused a sensation, with people asking what the heck happened in Alaska, a state that seemed to have every reason to smash turnout records. The governor, Sarah Palin, was running for vice president, the first Alaskan on a major party presidential ticket. Alaska's two congressional giants, Ted Stevens and Don Young, were fighting for their political lives. Barack Obama had generated fierce passion among Alaska Democrats, and both parties had huge caucus turnout and voter registration drives.
The Huffington Post, one of the most popular liberal Web sites in the country, posed the question "Stolen Election From Alaska?" and said something stinks at the state Division of Elections. National newspaper Web sites and TV talk shows questioned what happened. A Daily News headline called the turnout puzzling, and Anchorage pollster Moore suggested that "something smells fishy," although he said it was premature to suggest conduct of the election was suspect.
Moore's latest column in the Anchorage Press sought to put a lid on the excitement, saying "okay, for all you conspiracy mongers out there, let's tamp down the inflammatory talk of election fraud just for a few days, could we?"
Shannyn Moore of Anchorage, who wrote the Huffington Post piece, said she's thrilled to see so many absentees come in but still would have expected more voters given what's at stake. She said she's not alleging election fraud but, given what's happened elsewhere, it's important to ask questions.
"It's foolish to not be curious in looking at these things," she said.
The results also raised questions. Alaska polling was way off, unlike in the other major races across the nation. Pollsters had predicted comfortable victories for Democratic challengers Mark Begich and Ethan Berkowitz. Instead, Young beat Berkowitz and Begich was losing to Stevens after Election Day. Absentee votes turned it around for Begich, and he now leads -- although by less than half a percentage point -- going into Tuesday's final count of remaining ballots.
Liberal television talk show host Rachel Maddow brought up election security concerns to Begich in an interview with him on her MSNBC show last week. He said "we have great faith in our system up there ... we're confident this is a normal process." The Stevens campaign hasn't raised any concerns either.
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