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As ballot counting continues, some Alaskans grow increasingly impatient with slow pace

Absentee ballots being scanned for tabulation at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The Alaska Division of Elections counted thousands of absentee, early and questioned ballots on Tuesday, but with almost 100,000 votes still uncounted, a growing number of Alaskans say they’re unhappy with the pace of results.

“I’m not satisfied at all. It just seems like we need to make some changes,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and a former member of the state’s elections policy task force, which dissolved in 2018.

“It’s a terrible way to administer an election and give the public confidence that nothing’s being done in the background,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.

The delay has garnered attention locally and nationally. Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took a shot on Twitter, as have others. As of Tuesday, Alaska had by far the largest percentage of uncounted votes as any state.

It’s the result of policy, not a lack of effort on the part of election workers. Alaska waits a week after Election Day to start counting absentee and some early voting ballots. With high absentee voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of unprocessed ballots has been placed under a microscope.

On Tuesday, several people questioned the Division of Elections on social media, asking officials to explain how the unique weeklong delay improves integrity.

“We can ask the appropriate people for that information and try to give you an explanation,” the elections division responded on Twitter.

“More than anything, it’s an inconvenience for folks who are trying to figure out if they’re elected or not elected. But the real danger with a slow count is if the public feels there’s something wrong with the process. And in my view, they’re right. We do need to clarify this in the upcoming Legislature,” Kawasaki said.

Alaska is the only state in the nation that delays the counting of absentee ballots until at least after Election Day. Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, has previously said that delay is needed because the state compares signature books at Election Day polling stations with absentee ballots submitted by voters.

Until the books return from the state’s 400-plus polling stations to regional counting facilities, absentee ballots can’t be fully processed.

Election official Elaine Leibert prepares absentee ballots to be scanned and tabulated at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Election official Lisa Torkelson scanned absentee ballots for tabulation at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Election officials open absentee ballot envelopes during a count at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

But in 2016 and 2018, Alaska used a different procedure common in other states. If someone requested an absentee ballot, their local poll book contained a warning label indicating that they had done so.

If they wanted to vote in person instead of through the mail, they either had to vote a questioned ballot — which would be subject to additional post-election review — or bring their blank absentee ballot to the polls as proof that they hadn’t voted twice. Poll workers were instructed to tear up the absentee ballot in front of the voter to make sure.

That procedure allowed some absentee ballots to be counted on Election Day because officials could guarantee their validity ahead of time.

Alaska law also restricts the amount of pre-processing that can be done before Election Day. Some states allow election workers to examine absentee ballots three weeks before Election Day, according to analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alaska’s absentee ballot review board isn’t convened until a week before Election Day.

Pennsylvania, which similarly restricts absentee ballot review, hired multiple shifts of election workers to process ballots faster. Alaska did hire additional workers this year to deal with a record absentee turnout, but it does not appear to have done so to the extent that Pennsylvania did.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, the elected official in charge of the state’s elections, has declined multiple interview requests from the Daily News, including one on Tuesday afternoon when his spokesperson said he was unavailable.

Meyer did give an interview on the election process on a conservative talk radio show Tuesday morning, saying his goal is to keep elections normal despite an abnormal year.

The Daily News sent a list of questions to Meyer and his staff, including whether Alaska’s system provides more security than other states and whether Meyer is happy with how the election has been run. He did not respond.

While some have been quick to publicly voice frustration, Alaska’s congressional campaigns have shown patience. Challengers Al Gross and Alyse Galvin are fighting the large leads that U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Don Young secured on election night and the following day. Both the Gross and Galvin campaigns have said they believe early and absentee voting could favor them enough to come back and win.

Matt Shuckerow, Sullivan’s campaign manger, said the campaign will look back at the process after the election, and said he expects the state and Legislature will do the same. But he has confidence in the integrity of the system.

“In a perfect world, we would have loved to have our results sooner, to have more clarity in this election, but we’re patient,” Shuckerow said.

David Keith, campaign manager for Al Gross, also said he is not frustrated with the delayed results. He characterized it as “enhanced anticipation.”

Despite the state’s slow start, Alaska law demands that the state finish counting no more than 15 days after Election Day, and the election is scheduled to be certified by Nov. 25. If it does so, the state will finish ahead of at least 19 others, which have later deadlines or none at all.

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