About 150,000 Alaskans voted in the June 11 special primary election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat. It was a wild contest, with 48 candidates splitting those votes. But more than 6,000 Alaska voters will find out after the vote is certified that their vote was never counted.
It’s not yet clear why an unprecedented number of primary ballots have been rejected; the Division of Elections has supplied numbers of rejected ballots — 6,205 as of Wednesday evening — but not reasons for their rejection. One potential culprit is witness signatures — the language relating to witness requirements accompanying Alaskans’ ballots was needlessly complicated — but we won’t know for sure until after the election is certified.
One reason to suspect that witness requirements may have been a stumbling block for voters is that in 2020′s general election, when courts ruled that witness signatures weren’t necessary, the rate of rejected mail-in ballots dropped to its lowest point in years. If it is indeed the witness requirement at issue, the Division of Elections should redouble efforts to educate voters on what’s legally required — and make ballot instructions clear and unambiguous.
Troublingly, although the rate of rejections averages almost exactly 4% statewide, a number itself which is far too high, it is far higher in rural districts, poorer districts and ones where there are more voters for whom English isn’t their first language. In Bethel’s district, for instance, nearly 17% of ballots were rejected. That’s disappointing but not surprising; education and outreach methods through traditional and online channels are much better at connecting with more affluent, engaged voters. That approach can fall flat in rural communities where newspapers aren’t delivered and internet access is limited. To reach the voters whose votes are being cast out, more effort is necessary — in-person education and buy-in from trusted community members who, frankly, are often better at explaining requirements than a city-based election worker.
Alaska should also contemplate a ballot curing process, by which voters are notified of problems with their ballot and given the opportunity to fix them before the election is over. Having the option to cure ballot errors could greatly reduce the number of rejected ballots, and the current system — in which voters don’t know if their vote counted until after it’s too late to do anything about it — seems designed to frustrate those whose ballots aren’t counted. Our goal should be to make sure all adult Alaskans who want to cast a ballot can do so; we won’t accomplish that by sending them letters after the fact saying, “Oh, by the way, we threw out your vote.”
Be wary, however, of attempts by partisan actors to cast doubt upon the methods by which the election is being conducted. The high number of rejected ballots is not the fault of ranked-choice voting — which should be obvious, but detractors of ranked-choice have already tried to tie the two together to push their own preference for the old system. Nor is a high rate of rejections an inevitable consequence of mail-in voting; in Washington state, where mail-in voting has been the norm for several election cycles, their rate of rejection is 0.72%, with the highest rate of rejection in any district a reasonable 1.2%.
As we move forward with better, more egalitarian voting systems, there will inevitably be hurdles to overcome and growing pains to experience. We shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to turn around and go backward; rather, we should learn from the lessons each election teaches us about how to conduct the next one in a way that maximizes participation and security simultaneously.