Many Alaskans sent absentee ballots later than recommended during primary

Despite worries over slow mail delivery this year, absentee ballots in Alaska’s Aug. 18 primary did not arrive unusually late at the Alaska Division of Elections, according to an analysis of the past three statewide primaries.

But the same analysis, by the Anchorage Daily News, indicates many Alaskans are mailing their ballots later than a one-week deadline recommended by U.S. Postal Service.

That increases the number of rejected ballots because state law requires mailed ballots to be postmarked by election day and most postmarking takes place in Anchorage, a day or more away by mail from most of the state. Late postmarks are the No. 2 reason why the Division of Elections rejects absentee votes.

If Alaskans continue to send ballots later than recommended, it could affect the result: A record number of absentee ballots were cast in the primary, and even more are expected in November.

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill lost his primary race by 14 votes this year. Thirty mailed votes in his district were rejected by the Alaska Division of Elections for various reasons.

Some of the rejected ballots were mailed on election day, according to dates handwritten on the ballot envelopes, but had postmarks from the day after election day. The Division of Elections, following state law, left those votes unopened.

“I think people are going to have to be alerted that if they’re going to have to vote absentee in Fairbanks, they’re going to have to get things in a day ahead of the deadline,” Coghill said.


[Alaskans' interest in voting by mail has never been higher. Here’s a guide to voting in the November election.]

The Postal Service recommends a week, not a day, because ballots typically travel by first-class mail, and the vast majority of first-class mail arrives between two and five days after it’s sent, according to Postal Service documents.

In Alaska, more ballots arrive at the Alaska Division of Elections after the primary election day than in the three weeks before it, according to an analysis of the state’s absentee voter files from the past three primary elections. That means many Alaskans are mailing their ballots in the last days before the election.

But under state law, when a ballot is postmarked matters more than when it arrives at the Division of Elections. Ballots can arrive as late as 10 days after a primary election and still be counted, but they must be postmarked by election day.

“All stamped collection mail originating in Alaska is routed through and canceled at the Anchorage Processing and Distribution Center,” said James Boxrud, a spokesman for the Postal Service in the Western United States.

Alaska used to have some machines in Fairbanks that sorted and postmarked mail, but those were removed about 2011, said Don Sneesby, head of the National Mail Handlers Postal Union in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Both men said local post offices can postmark mail by hand if someone requests it, but the default is Anchorage.

Ahead of the general election, the state is revising its instructions for mail-in ballots to emphasize the need to return ballots as soon as possible, said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections.

“The division will again be messaging for voters who want to vote by-mail to get their application in sooner rather than later and also to return their ballot, once received, as soon as possible to ensure it arrives to the division in time to be counted,” she said.

Absentee ballots sent to Alaskans overseas will be mailed starting Sept. 18. In-state and US absentee ballots go out starting Oct. 9. The state has been mailing reminder postcards to Alaskans who have already signed up to receive a ballot through the mail.

Voters can track the progress of their ballots online, and if the vote has not been received by Election Day, a voter can still go to the polls and vote in person. The in-person vote will override any mailed vote.

Absentee ballots can also be delivered to any Division of Elections office, any voting location or one of a handful of dropboxes statewide. The dropboxes are not the same as those used in the Anchorage elections.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.