Turnout by Alaska voters in the Tuesday election is on pace to fall below 60 percent, which would be the lowest statewide participation in a presidential contest since 1996, according to the Division of Elections.
"We'll make the 50s, I just don't think it's going to be the high 50s," said Division Director Gail Fenumiai.
In making that estimate, Fenumiai was accounting for the tens of thousands of absentee and questioned ballots that remain to be counted later this month.
Outgoing Republican Party of Alaska chief Randy Ruedrich said he expected participation to dip this year compared to the combative 2008 elections. Former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican Ted Stevens in the U.S. Senate race that year. Voters were electing a new president and Alaska Congressman Don Young faced a well-known challenger in former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz.
"I was not expecting 60 percent (turnout this year), to be very honest," Ruedrich said. "There wasn't the energy. The Obama campaign had nowhere near the energy it had four years ago here and the Republican presidential campaign didn't have nearly the intensity that we had because it didn't have (Sarah) Palin on the ballot."
Turnout topped 66 percent in both the 2004 and 2008 general elections, according to the state. Fenumiai said turnout is down this year in several categories, including absentee ballots sent by mail and early voting, compared to four years ago.
About 223,556 ballots, out of a pool of 506,432 registered voters, have been counted so far in the 2012 election. That amounts to a turnout of 44 percent, a number that will soon grow as the state begins counting another 35,000 absentee ballots on Nov. 13.
Eligible absentee ballots may arrive by mail until Nov. 21.
"They trickle in a little bit now. The majority of them I think have been received," Fenumiai said.
Election officials on Thursday were still determining the number of questioned ballots that remain to be counted, she said.
There were 20,441 questioned ballots in 2008, boosting the final turnout that year by about 4 percent.
"I'm assuming it's going to be less (this year) because, overall, everything else has been down," Fenumiai said.
Ruedrich guessed that turnout this year would likely reach about 56 percent or 57 percent when absentee and questioned ballots are counted. That's lower than other modern presidential races. Turnout was about 59 percent in 1996 and 61 percent in 2000 before rising to two-thirds of eligible voters participating in the past two contests.
While all but one state legislative race was on the ballot this year, three were uncontested in the Senate and 14 were uncontested in the House.
"We had a large number of unopposed candidates down ballot," said Kay Brown, executive director for the Alaska Democratic Party. A lack of major statewide races, such as a Senate contest, also may have lessened turnout, she said.
In addition to the questioned ballots, Fenumiai said the ballots remaining to be counted include:
• 11,320 absentee-in-person
• 22,982 absentee-by-mail
• 2,738 online delivery
• 370 absentee-by-fax
• 189 special needs.
By KYLE HOPKINS