Even when pressing issues and divisive candidates are on the ballot, a substantial percentage of Alaska's registered voters stay home. That's unfortunate not only because opting out of the electoral process means government will be less representative of Alaskans' priorities and concerns, but also because in many cases, a small number of votes can tip the balance. With Election Day just around the corner on Nov. 6, the three biggest races on the ballot — for governor, U.S. Representative and Ballot Measure 1 — appear tight, and your vote could make a difference.
If you're skeptical about how much of a difference one vote can make, you don't have to look far back into the past to find a host of races that turned on a handful of votes. Here's an incomplete rundown of tight contests in recent Alaska history:
The Girdwood police tax
In April 2016, Girdwood residents voted on Proposition 9, a measure to voluntarily institute a local tax in the Turnagain Arm community to provide for police service. Girdwood's Alaska State Trooper post was among the first major casualties of budget-cutting in the wake of Alaska's fiscal crisis, and residents were worried about a lack of law enforcement presence in the town.
The vote was extraordinarily close, prevailing by just two votes in the initial count. In an unusual move, the sponsors of the measure themselves took up a collection for a recount, so that there would be no question of the result. The outcome didn't change — it actually picked up a single vote, and the tax prevailed by a final tally of 411 in favor to 408 opposed.
The wild North Slope Democratic primary
Also in 2016, the August Democratic primary in House District 40 was a chaotic, bitter affair. Incumbent Ben Nageak and challenger Dean Westlake fought a tough contest, and the result — a narrow, eight-vote victory for Westlake — was marred by mistakes made by poll workers. At least a dozen voters in Shungnak were given both Democratic and Republican primary ballots. After a legal challenge from Nageak's camp, a Superior Court judge threw out 12 Democratic ballots from those voters, which put Nageak ahead by two and made him the apparent victor. But the Alaska Supreme Court reversed that ruling and reinstated the original result, which handed a win back to Westlake.
The ruling effectively awarded Westlake the seat, as Republicans hadn't fielded a candidate in the North Slope district. Midway through his term, Westlake resigned after he became the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct. He was replaced by John Lincoln, who is running for re-election in the district this year.
A battle in the Interior
The 2008 election cycle proved an interesting — and nailbitingly close — one for Rep. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks. He was challenged in the Republican primary by local militia leader Schaeffer Cox, who was later convicted of conspiracy to murder federal officials.
In the general election, Kelly faced Democratic challenger Karl Kassel, who rode a "blue wave" of left-leaning enthusiasm that shook up the balance of power in the Alaska Legislature. Unfortunately for Kassel, that wave crested exactly one vote short, and he lost the race by the smallest possible margin, with 5,017 votes to Kelly's 5,018. If one Interior resident had flipped their vote from Kelly to Kassel, it would have gone the other way.
The coin flip
There is, however, one race that will never be eclipsed for the tightest finish in Alaska history. In the 2006 Democratic primary for House District 37, Dillingham's Bryce Edgmon challenged incumbent Rep. Carl Moses. After a Supreme Court fight over a handful of disputed ballots, the race was tied, and the state law governing tied races dictates that candidates settle the result by drawing lots — in this case, a coin toss.
The showdown took place in the Wilda Marston Theatre at Anchorage's Loussac Library, and the coin was specially made by the Alaska Mint, featuring a walrus on one side and the state seal on the other. According to the Division of Elections' recounting of the event,
"Lt. Gov. Loren Leman convened the coin toss. Director of the Division of Elections Whitney Brewster flipped the Alaska Mint medallion, with the walrus side being "heads" and the State of Alaska seal being "tails." Rep. Moses' name was drawn prior to the coin flip to call his choice for the flip. He called heads. The coin landed on tails, making the winner Bryce Edgmon."
Edgmon, who has held office continually since, went on to become the Speaker of the House in 2016. He is the first Alaska Native legislator to hold the position.
Eight votes? Three votes? One vote? No votes? All of these races took place in the course of a decade, and with multiple tight contests forecast this year, the catalog of tight Alaska races could see new additions to this list. Make sure your voice is included in the outcome — get out and vote on Nov. 6.
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