Vote count foulup creates quandary on North Slope, but it's hardly an 'illegal election'

There is one important question about the vote count in the 2016 state election primary: Did the mistake by an election precinct worker in Shungnak give challenger Dean Westlake a win over Rep. Bennie Nageak in the Democratic primary?

If Westlake holds onto what is now a 21-vote margin, it's possible, but not likely that he won because of the worker's error.

State certification of the election is imminent and the courts will have the final say, but here's my take.

A poll worker mistakenly gave both the Republican primary ballot and the ballot that contained Democratic and Libertarian candidates to the 50 voters who went to the polls on Election Day in the Kobuk River village 150 miles east of Kotzebue.

This should not have happened. The law requires a voter choose one ballot or the other, not both.

Any voter who chose the Republican ballot would have been unable to vote in the Nageak-Westlake contest on the Democratic side.

For each voter who picked the GOP ballot, Westlake's 48-2 Shungnak landslide would have been diminished accordingly because his name was not on the Republican ballot.

It's entirely possible that a small number of Shungnak voters would have picked the GOP ballot.

I believe it is a small number because there were no significant contests on the Republican ballot. It only contained the races featuring Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, who did not have prominent primary challengers.

Neither Young, nor Murkowski have pulled big percentages of primary votes in the past from Shungnak because few voters there have chosen the GOP ballot in the 16 years since multiple ballots have been standard procedure. In 2004, Murkowski had 2 primary votes from Shungnak, while Young had 5.

The GOP numbers in Shungnak have fluctuated over the years in the single and low double digits, peaking at 18 in 2010, when Joe Miller gave Murkowski a run for her money.

The split in Shungnak that year was 11-7 in Murkowski's favor, while 30 voters chose the ballot containing the Democratic candidates.

For state offices, Republican legislative candidates are extinct on the North Slope, so the only serious contest again this year was for the state House seat occupied by Nageak.

The Shungnak landslide for Westlake was similar to the 49-6 edge he gained in 2014, when he first faced Nageak in a primary, an election in which double ballots were not handed out by mistake.

For that election, 11 people chose to vote on the Republican ballot—one that included a race for governor and the U.S. Senate—while 55 selected the ballot in which they could choose a legislative candidate.

Westlake's family is originally from the Kobuk River valley and he has his strongest support in villages like Shungnak.

Nageak, who is from Barrow, dominated in the North Slope Borough, while Westlake piled up big margins in the Kotzebue region and the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Nageak has never been a big vote-getter in Shungnak. In 2012, when he was first elected, he received 3 votes in the precinct, while two Democratic opponents had 50 votes. There were seven voters who picked the Republican ballot that year.

Despite the party label, Nageak sides with the Republicans in Juneau, who regard him as one of their own.

That's a big reason why Westlake, a former police officer from Kotzebue, has won the backing of the Democratic Party and the animus of the GOP.

The Republican Party wants to throw out the Nageak-Westlake results and allow both Democratic candidates to be on the ballot in November for the general election. The Democrats say no.

Subtract the Shungnak results from the August totals and Nageak wins. Keep all or most of them and Westlake wins.

The Republican Party has made much of the Westlake landslide in Shungnak, suggesting the 48-2 blowout hints of underhanded activity.

The district has 23 precincts, many of which had one-sided results, a product of  family connections, friendships, political alliances and regional strengths that each man has built up over the years.

Elsewhere in the district,  both in 2014 and 2016,  most of the precincts results either went heavily for Westlake or Nageak.

In Selawik, Westlake won 68-6, while he won 74-14 in Noorvik and 66-20 in Noatak. On the other hand, Nageak won 92-20 in Barrow, 276-46 in Browerville and 45-3 in Wainwright.

Westlake won in every community in the Northwest Arctic Borough, while Nageak did just as well in the North Slope Borough.

The judges who will look at this case will be wary of disenfranchising all the voters of a precinct because of an error by an election official. To call this an "illegal" election, as Senate President Kevin Meyer did, is a stretch.

The courts will analyze the history of voting in the village and weigh the seriousness of the violations, understanding that every election has its share of mistakes.

The argument in favor of rejecting the Shungnak votes is that an unknown number of them would never have been cast in the Nagaek-Westlake race had the election been conducted properly.

Turn that a bit for the key argument in favor of keeping the votes — there is no proof the results would have changed and every voter in the Democratic primary was allowed to pick that ballot under party rules. This is not true of the GOP ballot, open only to party members and those who do not belong to another party.

While Nageak supporters will say voters were disenfranchised because some votes should not have been made, Westlake supporters will argue there is no proof anyone was disenfranchised.

It's impossible to be exact about this because we don't know the minds of the 50 voters who received double ballots, but it's hard to believe that a large number of them would have opted to not participate in the single competitive race in August and withhold support from a hometown favorite.

One of the odd aspects of the situation is that simply in terms of votes cast, the biggest beneficiaries of the double-ballot mistake were veteran candidates who received nearly three dozen more votes than ever before in a Shungnak primary — Murkowski and Young.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.  The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.