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Election turnout underwhelms despite blockbuster spending

Kyle Hopkins

A coalition of oil companies and their allies spent as much as $170 for every vote they won Tuesday to thwart an oil tax repeal. Republican and Democrat candidates across the state knocked on tens of thousands of doors and rang countless phones. Volunteers chauffeured voters to the polls. 

How did many voters respond to all that big spending and elbow grease? A resounding shrug.  

With 100 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, the Division of Elections listed the initial turnout for the high-profile primary at just 31.7 percent of registered voters.

“Not good,” said Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.

“The public was expecting more just because of the, basically because of the ballot measure, the referendum,” Fenumiai said, referring to the failed proposal to roll back Alaska’s controversial oil tax regime.

“They were really thinking that was going to draw out a large voting populace and it really didn’t,” she said.

Big spending doesn’t always lead to big turnouts, said Ben Sparks, campaign manager for Republican primary Senate winner Dan Sullivan. Much of the campaign money spent in the past year paid for television ads, which might change people’s opinions but doesn’t necessarily get them out of their seats if they weren’t planning on voting anyway, he said. 

Still, Election Day attendance is better than it first appears.

At least 15,319 votes remained to be counted, Fenumiai said Wednesday. That includes early votes that were cast after Friday and absentee ballots that are already in hand.

The total number of uncounted votes will continue to rise, although it’s unclear what the final number will be. If all ballots sent out to absentee voters return completed, the total would rise to more than 21,000 additional ballots.

Once the final votes are counted, the total turnout number will likely rise to slightly above 35 percent or more, similar to other recent statewide primaries, but short of banner years like the 41 percent turnout in 2008.

Here’s a look at the primary turnout over the past 12 years, and the main events that drew voters to the polls:

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