Why is Alaska moving backward on counting votes?

Compared to the rest of the U.S., Alaska’s vote-counting pace could accurately be described as glacial. By Nov. 13, multiple states had already certified their election results, and others had not only finished counting but in some cases recounted ballots or run an audit of vote totals. Meanwhile, Alaska continued to chip away at its pile of uncounted ballots, which — after a weeklong waiting period followed by three days of counting — had been reduced from about 156,000 votes to about 30,000.

If you’re wondering what took us so long to get our votes counted, you’re not alone. And if you think we ought to be able to do better, you’re right. How can we be sure about that? Well, the best evidence is that we have done better — as recently as two years ago.

Here’s the way Alaska’s election worked this year: Starting the second week of October, mail-in absentee ballots were sent out to the more than 100,000 Alaska voters who requested them, and they started being returned almost immediately. Those ballots were stored until seven days before Election Day, when the Absentee Ballot Review Board started verifying mailed-in ballots. This process continued for two weeks, until a week after Election Day, when elections workers started counting absentee ballots. That’s right: Nearly half of Alaska voters' ballots sat in storage — some for as much as a month — before they were counted.

Elections director Gail Fenumiai has stated that the reason for the longest ballot-counting delay in the U.S. is to ensure safety and integrity, which “should always take priority.” We agree, election safety and integrity is paramount. But neither Fenumiai nor anyone else at the Division of Elections has been able to explain how Alaska’s system is any safer or has more integrity than other states where counts are conducted far sooner. For that matter, they haven’t satisfactorily explained why, in a year when far more Alaskans cast ballots early than any previous election, the state opted to revert to a system in which those absentee votes weren’t counted for at least a week after the polls closed on election night. If we were operating under the same plan as in 2018 — executed under the same laws and with many of the same elections staff — many of those absentee ballots would have been counted on election night. Many of the statewide and Alaska Legislature races that have been hanging in limbo since Nov. 3 would have instead seen resolution hours after the polls closed. And Alaska’s three electoral college votes for the presidential race could have been tallied at a time when the nation was paying attention, rather than being tacked on as an afterthought more than a week later.

Alaska’s Division of Elections does a hard, necessary and vitally important job. And it’s important to give all ballots time to arrive — ours is a far-flung state, after all. But there’s no reason to delay the counting of verified ballots that arrived before Election Day. Long delays in counting make voters anxious that something may be going awry, and increases suspicion that external or internal forces could tamper with the election results.

As a matter of fact, the practice of waiting so long after Election Day to count ballots may violate Alaska law. The relevant statute governing absentee ballot-counting reads: “Counting of absentee ballots that have been reviewed shall begin at 8:00 p.m., local time, on the day of the election...” Unless the members of the Absentee Ballot Review Board spent the week before the election twiddling their thumbs, there were ballots reviewed before the polls closed on Election Day — and by law, those should have been counted immediately, as they were in 2016 and 2018. For that matter, the same statute states that the Absentee Ballot Review Board must begin meeting “No less than seven days preceding the day of election” — in a year when more than 100,000 absentee ballots were submitted by voters, and it was clear this would be the case months prior, why did the state have the ballot review board wait until the minimum legal amount of time prior to the election before starting to verify ballots?

Alaska will always present special challenges to the safe, secure and timely administration of elections. But elections officials actively slowed down the state’s results by reverting to an older, needlessly delay-ridden plan for absentee ballot counting. In an ordinary election year, when perhaps a third as many absentee ballots were cast, it might not have been an issue. But it was abundantly clear that the pandemic would change that math, and the Division of Elections dropped the ball. In future elections, at a minimum, the state should count absentee ballots as it did in 2016 and 2018, starting on election night. Furthermore, elections staff and legislators should examine the state’s procedures and laws to see if we can benefit from the adoption of practices used by other states where the vast majority of ballots, both in-person and absentee, are counted within hours after the polls close. We all want secure elections, conducted with integrity, so that Alaskans maintain their faith in the process. Timeliness in reporting results is a big part of keeping that faith.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.