Questions arise over close House race after revelation of ballot mistake

Voters in the tiny far-north village of Shungnak were the only ones in the state who didn't have to make a choice over their ballot in Tuesday's primary — they were mistakenly given both the Republican and combined Democratic-Libertarian-Alaskan Independence party ballots.

Now that error is a new factor in the extremely close election that may lead to the defeat of incumbent Rep. Ben Nageak, a Democrat from Barrow.

State Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke said there's no need to redo the election because voters didn't vote twice in any race, including in the Alaska House District 40 contest, covering the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs.

"It's not like there's double votes," she said.

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Irregularities also have emerged in other precincts in that part of Alaska.

Some Republicans in one of two Barrow precincts, Browerville, wanted to vote in the Democratic House District 40 primary but were told they had to vote a questioned ballot, requiring them to fill out an extra form and undergo reviews to make sure their vote would count.


That was wrong, Bahnke says. Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary in Alaska, though not the other way around because Republicans have closed their primary. Some Republicans in Barrow refused to vote a questioned ballot, so didn't get to vote in the Democratic House race at all, said voter Luke Welles, who reported the problem to the elections office and the Republican Party.

In Point Hope, the precinct chair — who worked the election solo — left the polling place Tuesday night without counting the ballots and calling in the result, which goes against election protocol. Elections officials tried frantically to reach him, but his phone wasn't working. He returned before noon Wednesday to do the count.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who oversees state elections, said the troubles are prompting a review.

"I take any suggestions of voting irregularities very seriously and the Division is in the process of reviewing ballots and precinct procedures," the lieutenant governor said in an emailed statement.

The missteps suggest a need for better instruction, he said.

"We also consider this to be a training issue and one that the Division will address meaningfully and promptly," Mallott said.

The election will only be certified when all votes are counted, including absentees and questioned ballots, Mallott said. Questioned ballots are usually those of voters not on the precinct registry. Some questioned ballots get thrown away, but if they can be validated, they're counted like the others.

A hand-count verification of a sampling of ballots is set to begin Aug. 29 in Juneau and the election should be certified by the bipartisan State Review Board on Sept. 2, Mallott said.

Among the votes left to count: those from the village of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. There, a memory card holding the votes may have malfunctioned. It was being flown to Nome, but as of Friday evening, the Mekoryuk vote had yet to be tallied and posted for the public.

A fierce Democratic primary also was on the ballot there in House District 38.

"We just want to make sure everybody's voice is heard," said Bethel's Zach Fansler, the Democratic challenger in that race. He was leading Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel by 260 votes with that one precinct left to count. Fansler said he wasn't ready to call himself the winner until all the votes are in.

The 52 voters in Shungnak voted both the Republican ballot and the combined ballot, which includes Democratic candidates as well as any Libertarian and Alaskan Independence Party candidates.

"No one got to vote more than once in the ADL primary. That is really the line," Bahnke said.

Evelyn Woods, precinct chair in the village of about 260 people, said she started out on Election Day handing out both ballots to every voter and didn't realize her error until the poll closed at 8 p.m. Shungnak is on a bluff overlooking the Kobuk River 150 miles east of Kotzebue, a place where most every family hunts caribou — and where Nageak's opponent, Dean Westlake of Kotzebue, has strong support.

After the election, Woods said she looked over the precinct register that distinguishes voters by their party registration.

"I finally realized I did something wrong," she said. "I realized I gave both ballots, which I shouldn't have."

She told herself: "Oh shoot, I made a mistake."


The House Democratic contest there is the state's closest primary race. With some votes yet to be counted, including questioned, absentee and special-needs ballots for voters who need extra help, challenger Westlake is leading Nageak by five votes, 765 to 760, across all precincts. In Shungnak, he collected 48 votes to Nageak's two, according to the unofficial tally.

Westlake said he believed the election was conducted fairly. Nageak didn't return a call.

"The people out there are hardworking. They are honest," Westlake said.

Shungnak had two ballots left to be counted, one questioned, the other a special-needs ballot.

Whoever wins "will come in with the proper degree of humble," Westlake said.

Shungnak precinct chair Woods told village election judges about the problem and tried to call the regional elections office in Nome, but said she couldn't get through Tuesday night. She alerted them to the issue on Wednesday, the day after the primary, when the village reported its vote count. She said she felt badly about what happened.

Bahnke said she anticipated the election review board will allow the Shungnak balloting to stand as is. The same problem has happened in other primaries, she said, though she didn't have examples.

"Their votes will count," she said.


In all, six precincts didn't report their results Tuesday night or early Wednesday, Bahnke said, including Shungnak, Point Hope and Kaktovik in District 40.

Elections officials were calling around until 1:45 a.m. Wednesday trying to locate precinct chairs to get vote counts, she said.

In Point Hope, Bahnke tracked down cousins and messaged aunts on Facebook looking for precinct chair Lloyd Vincent, whose phone wasn't working. Officials got hold of Point Hope Mayor Jack Schaefer, but he said he didn't see cause to go knocking on Vincent's door.

"Why should we?" Schaefer said. "What's the rush?"

Vincent has run elections for years and knew what he was doing, the mayor said. "He is good people. I respect him."

Vincent couldn't find any poll workers so worked the election alone all day, Bahnke said. That night, he locked up the ballots at city hall, the polling place, before returning on Wednesday to count them, Bahnke said.

In the North Slope's Browerville, where Republicans had trouble getting the ballot they wanted, precinct chair Ethel Kuutuuq Taalak said, "I was kinda confused on the ballots." She is experienced at local elections but said she hadn't run a state election in 15 or 20 years.

The Friday before the primary, she participated in elections training, but it was on the phone late in the afternoon. She was tired. Plus, someone dear to her in the village had just died.

"I wasn't concentrating good," she said. The training should be in person and it shouldn't be last minute, she said.

Only seven questioned ballots were cast in Browerville and just three were because of ballot confusion, Bahnke said.

In House District 40, no Republican candidate was on the ballot. But if Shungnak voters had to choose a ballot, some of those who voted in the Democratic primary may have gone with the Republican ballot instead, where both U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Rep. Don Young were in primaries, though each triumphed big against marginal Republican opposition.

Were Nageak's two Shungnak votes from Republicans who might otherwise have chosen the Republican ballot and been unable to vote for him, or from people who would have chosen the combined ballot regardless? There's no way to know. But Nageak was targeted by the Alaska Democratic Party because of his alignment with the ruling Republican majority in the House.


Shungnak has 159 registered voters and 100 ballots were counted there on Election Day, giving the village an inflated turnout of 63 percent, well above the statewide total of about 15 percent.

According to the state, the village had 51 registered Democrats and 19 registered Republicans as of early August. The rest were in third parties or not registered with any party. Only Republicans and unaffiliated voters are supposed to cast a Republican ballot. Any voter can pick the combined ballot.

But they're not allowed to have both.


Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.