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Alaska Legislature

Challenged ballot gives Republican a 1-vote victory in key Alaska House race

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: December 1
  • Published November 30

JUNEAU — The tie stayed until the very end, when a decision about a ballot challenged during Friday’s recount flipped control of House District 1 — and with it, control of the Alaska Legislature — to the Republican Party.

The final tally from Friday gives Republican Bart LeBon 2,663 votes and Democratic candidate Kathryn Dodge 2,662 votes.

“This one is for the books,” LeBon said after leaving the Juneau conference room where votes were being recounted.

LeBon’s victory means a Republican-aligned House caucus holds 21 seats, enough for a majority in the House. After the election of Mike Dunleavy as governor and the electoral success of Republicans in the Alaska Senate, the Republican Party has a trifecta: complete control of Alaska’s state government.

LeBon gained one vote in the recounting of absentee ballots; Dodge gained a vote in the recounting of the Election Day results from Fairbanks Precinct No. 3. The two candidates were tied at 2,661 votes beginning the day, and the changes left them tied at 2,662 votes.

Then came decisions about whether or not to count certain absentee ballots whose legality was challenged by one side or the other. Did a resident properly live in the district? Did a convicted felon have their voting rights appropriately restored before casting their ballot? It was not immediately clear how many ballots were challenged by either side.

With assistant attorney general Margaret Paton-Walsh in the room alongside representatives from each candidate, it was decided that one previously invalid ballot should be counted. That ballot was for LeBon.

“At the end of the day, we have a standard procedure to review the rejected ballots, and during that review, Region III supervisor (Jeremy Johnson) and myself identified a ballot that had initially been rejected,” said Josie Bahnke, director of the Division of Elections.

Johnson explained that upon further review, the former felon who cast that ballot had exited probation in 2017. Under state law, a felon can get their voting rights restored when they leave the criminal justice system and ask for their rights back.

“Then today, upon further research, we were able to determine that they had been off of probation since 2017 and they had an appropriately filed registration application, so that’s why that ballot would be counted,” Johnson said.

The ballot envelope was sealed until that decision was made, leading to a moment of high drama when it was open, revealing LeBon’s name.

The end of the recount signals the opening of a five-day period in which either candidate may legally challenge the result of the election in court. Any challenge could be addressed directly to the Alaska Supreme Court.

“I haven’t made decisions,” Dodge said when asked whether she intends to challenge the result.

Bart LeBon, Republican candidate for House District 1, watches the recount of his race against Democratic candidate Kathryn Dodge on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in the offices of the Alaska Division of Elections in Juneau, Alaska. (James Brooks/ADN)

Reporters were denied access to the room containing the recount but were allowed to watch proceedings through an open door.

House at stake

The race for House District 1 became a critical one for determining control of the statehouse as a whole.

In the 2017-18 Legislature, the House was controlled by a 22-person coalition majority that included 17 Democrats, two independents and three Republicans. One of those Republicans, Paul Seaton of Homer, lost his race for re-election to Republican Sarah Vance after choosing to run as a Democratic-aligned nonpartisan candidate. One independent, Jason Grenn of Sand Lake, lost to Republican Sara Rasmussen.

On the other side of the aisle in the 2017-18 Legislature was an 18-member Republican minority. With two coalition seats flipped to the minority, each side had 20 members.

Then came House District 1, occupied by Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.

Rather than run for re-election, Kawasaki chose to run for the Alaska Senate. He defeated Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, but his ostensible replacement met a stiff Republican challenge.

Back and forth

LeBon held a 79-vote advantage over Dodge on Election Day, but votes counted afterward changed that result. One week after Election Day, officials counted remaining early votes and questioned ballots. That gave Dodge a 10-vote lead. Three days after that, officials counted absentee ballots that gave LeBon a five-vote lead.

After that, an audit by the bipartisan State Review Board found that seven votes were not read properly by the state’s optical scan machines.

One, for example, was torn, and the machine didn’t read it properly. Other ballots were registered by the machines as blank, but in reality contained votes for one candidate or the other.

Among the seven “undervoted” ballots, six were for Dodge and one was for LeBon.

When the new votes were added, the two candidates were tied, and that result stood when the division certified the election Nov. 26.

Questions before the final day

Ahead of Friday’s recount, Dodge and her attorney petitioned the division to count two ballots that had been rejected. One had been discovered in a gray secrecy sleeve within the ballot box normally used for absentee and question ballots. It was unaccompanied by the usual information that is used to confirm that such a ballot was cast legally.

The other had been declared an “overvote” by Bahnke: The ovals for both LeBon and Dodge had been filled in, but the filled oval for LeBon also had an X through it.

That vote was also not counted, Bahnke said.

Kathryn Dodge, Democratic candidate for House District 1, smiles after learning she has taken a lead during the recount for her statehouse race Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau. (James Brooks/ADN)

Talking to observers and reporters before the recount began, Bahnke said the ballot in the secrecy sleeve will not be counted.

After investigating, division workers found the ballot should have been destroyed as a mistake on Election Day.

As Bahnke explained, a woman had come in to cast a special-needs ballot for her husband, who was in a car outside the polling station. After filling out the ballot and leaving to give it to her husband to sign, she told poll workers she had made a mistake and needed a new ballot.

She was told to leave the spoiled ballot in the gray secrecy sleeve and it would be handled at the end of the day. It was correctly logged, but it accidentally ended up in the ballot box anyway.

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