This story was originally published by Alaska Public Media.
More than 75,000 Alaskans have already cast absentee ballots in this year’s election — nearly one-fourth of the total number of votes cast in the state in the last presidential election, in 2016.
State elections officials say they won’t start counting those absentee ballots until a week after Election Day — meaning that Alaskans could be in for a long wait before they learn the final results of congressional and state legislative races.
But experts say there are some clues that should help lessen the suspense — namely the huge number of Democrats who, following a national trend, have cast their votes on absentee ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alaska candidates and political consultants say that means the Election Day vote will likely skew more conservative than the final results, and that Republicans are hoping to be comfortably ahead in the early tally.
“This is not the year that you want to be waiting for those absentees to come in, if you’re a Republican candidate and you’re close or down on election night,” said Mike Dubke, a Washington D.C.-area consultant who’s working on GOP U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s reelection campaign.
Democratic enthusiasm for early and absentee voting was on display early Tuesday morning at Anchorage’s Midtown Mall.
It was still dark and not even 9 a.m., but Leo Jenkins had already finished casting his early ballot. The 66-year-old detailer said he’s a die-hard Democrat who came out to vote for Biden.
“He’s my man — him and Kamala Harris, that’s who I’m voting for,” Jenkins said. “If you’re a Democrat on the ballot, you got voted for, by me.”
There were plenty of Republicans and independents at the mall, too. But publicly available data from the state show that registered Democrats make up a disproportionate chunk of both absentee voters and early voters this year.
In 2016, about 15% of people who voted in Alaska were Democrats.
This year, Democrats have returned 27% of the 75,000 absentee ballots that have been mailed back to the state so far, according to data released Tuesday morning. And Democrats also make up some 20% of the 25,000 Alaskans who have voted early in-person. (Most of those in-person early votes will be counted on election night, with the exception of those cast in the last few days beforehand.)
One big question is whether that deluge of Democrats represents mostly voters who typically cast ballots on Election Day but are simply voting earlier this year because of the pandemic — or whether a significant chunk of those voters are newly registered or infrequent voters that have been recruited by political campaigns or motivated by their dislike for President Donald Trump.
If it’s the latter, that could suggest a surge of new Democratic votes that could tip the balance in closely-contested races.
But so far, the proportion of new and infrequent voters casting absentee or early ballots in Alaska is almost identical to figures from 2016 — 26% this year compared to 28% in 2016, according to data collected by a Democratic political data firm called Target Smart.
Nonetheless, the huge number of absentee ballots sets up what could end up being a painfully drawn-out vote-counting process this year.
Typically, most races are decided on election night, with only the tightest contests likely to shift as late-arriving absentee ballots are counted later.
But this year, experts warn that Alaskans should gird themselves for more widespread uncertainty for at least a week, since the state won’t even start counting absentee ballots before then.
“Sometimes election night feels like Christmas Eve. And this time around it feels like much earlier on the Advent calendar,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, an Anchorage political consultant who works with progressive candidates and causes. “It just seems like election night doesn’t really exist for the purposes of, like, getting to a concrete result in most races.”
While the election night vote count is unlikely to provide its usual finality this year, Alaskans won’t be completely in the dark about the tens of thousands of absentee ballots to be counted later.
That’s because so many more absentee ballots than usual are coming from Democrats.
Heckendorn said it makes sense to dampen election night expectations for left-leaning candidates, since many Democratic votes are expected to arrive later.
Even if races are just competitive after the initial count, that could bode well for progressives, he added, citing the East Anchorage state House race between Democrat Liz Snyder and Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt as an example.
“If Liz Snyder’s ahead in District 27 on election night,” Heckendorn said, “that would be a very bleak result for the Republican.”
Heckendorn noted that Republicans' unusual reliance on Election Day voter turnout comes with a certain degree of risk this year.
“I am not hoping for inclement weather on Election Day — I’m hoping for a safe election with sunny skies and the ability for everyone who wants to to get out and vote,” Heckendorn said. But, he added: “I suspect a Republican consultant would be especially concerned about bad weather.”
Asked about his level of snowstorm-related anxiety, Dubke, the GOP strategist working with Sullivan, laughed.
“Because I know Alaskans, just like the Postal Service, can go through snow and ice and will get to their appointed round of voting on Election Day,” Dubke said. “I am not that concerned.”
For now, the National Weather Service’s Anchorage-based forecast office doesn’t see any big storms on the horizon for Election Day, said meteorologist Ray Christensen.
But given that it’s still a week away, Christensen added, that forecast comes with “pretty low confidence.”
One other possible Election Day complication is the quickly-rising rate of COVID-19 infections. Last week, the state closed an early voting site in Palmer after a poll worker tested positive.
And outbreaks have also forced several small villages into lockdown in Bush Alaska, which tends to vote strongly Democratic. Among them is the Southwest Alaska community of Chevak, where more than 65% of voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and where more than 10% of the population has tested positive for COVID-19 this month.
The Alaska Division of Elections is monitoring all 441 precincts around the state, with a focus on rural sites, said spokeswoman Tiffany Montemayor. But, she added, “communications with Chevak indicate they are proceeding with having in-person voting on Election Day.”