Explaining Alaska’s slowest-in-the-nation ballot counting process last week, Alaska’s top elections official said integrity and security are more important than the speed of results.
In a series of interviews, Outside experts said security and speed isn’t an either/or decision. Instead, Alaska’s results are being slowed by the internal rules used by the Division of Elections.
Only about 55% of the state’s votes had been counted through Monday, with the rest scheduled for counting from Tuesday through Nov. 18. The state’s races for president, Congress, state legislature and two ballot measures are undecided.
Unique among the states, Alaska waits a full week after Election Day to start counting absentee ballots and some early votes.
“That is, I think, the anomaly,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior elections adviser for Democracy Fund who has occasionally advised the Alaska Division of Elections.
That schedule, set by Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai, was used from 2008 to 2014 and again this year. In 2016 and 2018, the division included some absentee ballots in Election Day counts.
The changed procedure might have been a footnote except for the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the pandemic, Alaskans voted absentee in record numbers, and polling indicates a partisan divide between those who voted on Election Day and those who did not. That has left many races without a clear winner.
“That’s been the story of this election, I think. Not just in Alaska, but in the Lower 48 as well, because we’ve had so many more voters,” Patrick said.
Counting absentee ballots involves two steps: reviewing to see whether a ballot is valid, then opening the ballot envelope and counting what’s inside. State law says a ballot can’t be counted until it’s been reviewed.
Most other states begin their reviews several weeks before Election Day, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alaska’s absentee ballot review board doesn’t convene until a week before Election Day.
In Alaska, review is slow because absentee ballots are compared against the signature books kept at every polling place on Election Day. Those books must be returned from polling places to the state’s regional elections offices.
“Duplicate voting is prohibited by law, and absentee ballots are not deemed eligible for counting until duplicate voter research is conducted. That cannot happen until after the voter history is processed from the 441 precinct registers. A large portion of these are returned after election day by mail,” said assistant attorney general Maria Bahr.
That procedure allows an Alaskan who requests an absentee ballot to easily go to the polls on Election Day if they change their mind. In some other states, anyone who requests an absentee ballot can still go to the polls, but the in-person vote is subject to extra scrutiny. That allows absentee ballots to be reviewed without consulting the signature books.
The pace of the counting has drawn criticism and inspired jokes on social media.
In Florida and Ohio, reviewed ballots are preloaded into a scanner. After polls close on Election Day, the scanner is turned on, and those ballots are added to the Election Day total within hours.
“There is literally no drawback to that system,” said David Becker, a former consultant for the Alaska Division of Elections and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
That system also allows absentee voters to receive confirmation that their ballot will be counted. In Alaska, absentee voters are not told until after Election Day whether their vote was counted. They can only be told whether or not it was received.
Pennsylvania, like Alaska, doesn’t review ballots before Election Day, but officials there started counting ballots almost immediately after they were reviewed, adding them piecemeal to the results. Alaska hasn’t done that yet.
Patrick said Pennsylvania also ran extra work shifts to review and count ballots faster.
Both she and Becker said it’s important to remember that other states are still counting ballots, just as Alaska is. The main difference is that by including some absentee ballots in their counts, observers in those states have been able to project winners.
Patrick said it’s also worth considering that while Alaska might be off to a slow start, it will finish its counting faster than 19 other states.
Alaska is scheduled to finish counting by Nov. 18 and is expected to certify its results by Nov. 25.
California, the last state with a date in state law, won’t finish until Dec. 11.