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Alaska primary after-action report: Turnout almost 40 percent

Michael Carey
OPINION: Once all the ballots were counted, Alaska's primary turnout turned out better than it looked at first blush -- and the numbers tell some interesting stories. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

We still await the final results of the the primary election, but the totals have been updated several times. The new numbers are worth a look.

First of all, the updates have significantly improved the turnout, now 38.91 percent. You will recall that on the morning after the election the turnout -- much derided -- was 31 percent.

This means about one in five ballots was counted after election night. The Alaska Division of Elections tallies a variety of ballots in the days following the election, mostly because these ballots need greater attention than those cast at the polls. Some of the early vote, the absentee and challenged ballots, ballots from those who needed assistance. Changing totals were anticipated. For example, the new gap between those who voted yes on the oil-tax referendum and those who voted is no is now more than 10,000 votes.

In the U.S. Senate race, 113,541 people took the GOP ballot. Some 111,431 of them voted for one of the four candidates. Less than two percent chose not to vote for any of the men on the ballot. The candidates were well known, a great deal was at stake.

But in the U.S. House race about 15 percent of the 71,567 people who took the combined Alaskan Independence Party, Libertarian and Democratic ballot did not vote for anyone. That's more than 10,000 people. What's the explanation? Voters have all kinds of reasons for leaving a race on their ballot blank, but in this case I am theorizing that most who took a pass never heard of Democrats Forrest Dunbar and Frank Vondersaar and Libertarian Jim McDermott. This augurs poorly for Dunbar, the Democratic nominee.

Returning to the oil referendum, more than 55 percent of the voters in House District 28 -- in South Anchorage -- turned out and gave "no" a 60 percent majority (4,903-3,197). Fifty-five percent turnout was the highest for any district in the state.

Meanwhile House District 15 in Muldoon and District 2 in Fairbanks are still vying for worst turnout, both approaching 22 percent. Fairbanks had the precinct with the lowest turnout, Fort Wainwright -- 1.60 percent of those registered voted, 59 citizens in all. This is not atypical of military precincts in a primary. Many military personnel are deployed overseas -- others register to vote to establish residency so they will receive state benefits like the Permanent Fund dividend but are not interested in voting.

Polling suggests Sean Parnell is not a particularly popular governor, but he still received more votes than anyone on the primary ballot, 80,076. Congressman Don Young finished second with 79,185. They both had virtually an identical percentage of voters who voted for no one in the GOP gubernatorial and House primary -- about 7 percent passed. There is no way of knowing who made up this 7 percent, but it's good bet some are Begich supporters who took the GOP ballot to vote for Joe Miller in the belief he would be Begich's weakest opponent. These people exist; I have met them. Whether they number 50 or 500 I don't know.

Finally, let's return to the referendum. Many Alaskans don't know it, but voters are permitted to request a ballot that has only propositions on it. Or in this case, the referendum. It's possible to figure out how many people did that. Here's the math. First add the number of those who chose the combined ballot and the GOP ballot. The total is 185,108. Then look at the "times counted" line on the referendum results. The number is 192,543. The referendum "times counted" -- ballots counted -- total is larger because of the people who took the referendum only ballot. There were 7,435 of these folks, or 3 percent of the total.

Surprising -- but then election returns always contain surprises.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com