Politics

Alaska plans unprecedented by-mail election in first step to replace Rep. Don Young

Alaskans will pick a temporary replacement for the late U.S. Rep. Don Young in special elections on June 11 and Aug. 16, said Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and members of his administration on Tuesday.

In an unprecedented move, the June 11 primary will take place mostly by mail, with ballots sent automatically to all Alaska voters registered at least 30 days before the election. The Aug. 16 general election will occur on the same day, and on the same ballot, as Alaska’s regular primary election.

The June 11 primary would be the state’s first statewide by-mail election, Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, said at a news conference with administration officials. The Aug. 16 general election would also be the first campaign decided by Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, adopted in a citizens initiative in 2020.

She said that given the short notice, a possible shortage of poll workers and logistics issues, there was no other option.

“We have a lot of challenges this year. It’s probably the toughest year that I know of, to have an election,” Meyer said.

An official proclamation from Dunleavy setting the election timeline was expected Tuesday evening or early Wednesday.

Candidates can sign up to run as soon as the proclamation is issued but must register by 5 p.m. April 1. The first ballots will be mailed to overseas voters starting April 27.

Officials inside and outside the Dunleavy administration said a by-mail election is likely the only way to proceed. But there were varying degrees of skepticism and concern about the proposal Tuesday.

[Alaska’s first ranked-choice election will be a special vote to replace Rep. Don Young]

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s largest organized labor group, said the plan “makes all the sense in the world.” Her organization will almost certainly conduct an educational campaign ahead of the special votes, even if it doesn’t endorse a candidate, she said.

State Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, has expressed concerns about the security of the state’s existing election system and has proposed legislation to change it.

“I don’t know that the administration has another option right now, as bad as it is,” he said of the prospect of a by-mail election.

Dunleavy and members of his administration considered other options. On Sunday, the governor asked legislative leaders by teleconference whether it would be possible to pass a law by Friday canceling the special primary in favor of a single election in August.

Lawmakers declined. Though theoretically possible, agreeing to Dunleavy’s request would require revising the language of Ballot Measure 2, the citizens initiative overhauling Alaska’s election system that a narrow majority of participating voters approved in 2020.

“The first election out of the gate after the passage of a citizens initiative should not be one where we changed the rules,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, though he said he has some worries about the by-mail election process.

Dunleavy, at the news conference, said “there was no attempt to override Ballot Measure 2.”

“The people’s initiative that put BM2 in place is, right now, the law. These guys and all of us are going to follow the law. The question was, ‘Do we need to have two elections?’” Dunleavy said.

Those discussions continued Monday, Shower said, as officials from the lieutenant governor’s office talked with his office about whether it would be possible to amend an existing bill, then pass that bill in order to eliminate the June 11 primary.

Shower said they concluded that even if such a bill were to pass the Legislature, it could be challenged in court, disrupting the replacement process.

State law allows an election by mail “if it is held at a time other than when the general, party primary, or municipal election is held.”

Fenumiai said each ballot for the special primary election will come with a prepaid return stamp. Voters will be required to sign their ballot and have a witness sign it. (The witness signature requirement was suspended last year because of COVID-19.) The voter must also provide a “numerical identifier,” such as their date of birth, Alaska driver’s license number, or the last four digits of their social security number.

In-person voting will be available at select locations starting two weeks before June 11. Ballots must be postmarked by that date in order to be counted. Officials said voters who wait until the last day should use a ballot dropbox — available at select locations — or walk into a post office and ask the postmaster to hand-postmark their ballot.

On the June 11 primary ballot, voters will be asked to pick a single candidate.

The four candidates who get the most votes will advance to the Aug. 16 special general election ballot. That ballot will also include the state’s regular primary election, where voters will be asked to pick the congressional candidates who appear on the November general election ballot.

In the special general election, Alaska’s first ranked-choice vote, Alaskans will be asked to rank their four options in order of preference, first to last.

If a candidate has the majority of the first-preference votes, they win. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The votes for the losing candidate go to those voters’ second choices.

The process repeats until there are only two candidates, and the one with the most votes wins.

A winner is expected to be declared by early September and would serve until January, when the winner of the November general election takes office.

Correction: The initial version of this story incorrectly reported the title of Joelle Hall. She is the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, not its executive director.

James Brooks

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

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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