As election officials count votes in Alaska’s first-ever statewide election by mail, they have rejected thousands of submitted ballots, including one in six from a Western Alaska state House district, causing concern from observers who say the state’s process is disenfranchising voters, particularly Alaska Natives.
At this week’s meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Anchorage, Michelle Sparck delivered a speech on behalf of a group whose mission is to improve Alaska Native voting rates.
When she described the issue, “there was a gasp in the audience. I think people are realizing or recognizing that it doesn’t look like democracy when you’ve got a 20% rejection rate,” Sparck said.
Of the 155,326 ballots received by state officials through Wednesday, 6,205 have been rejected for at least one of 17 reasons to disqualify a ballot without being counted.
Counting will continue through June 21, and elections officials will publish detailed data about the reasons for rejection after the results are certified on or about June 25.
So far, the rate of rejection isn’t significantly different from the percentage of mailed ballots rejected in all elections since 2016.
What’s different this year is the scale: Because almost every voter has participated by mail, the number of ballots being disqualified is much higher.
“By rejecting an astounding number of special election primary ballots, the state of Alaska is silencing the voices of our people who turn out to vote, many who are already facing increased barriers to voting access,” said Kendra Kloster of Native Peoples Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased voting by Alaska Natives. On Thursday, Native People Action asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and state legislators to address the problem.
Democratic candidate Mary Peltola is running in fourth place, but her best performance has been in Southwest Alaska, a region with the most rejected ballots. The fifth-place candidate, Republican Tara Sweeney, also drew support from parts of the state with high rejection rates.
Kim Jones, Peltola’s campaign manager, said the order of finishers would not have changed if rural Alaska had rejection rates similar to parts of urban Alaska, but it remains a concern because voters in August will be asked to participate in the state’s first-ever ranked-choice election, and the instructions for that vote will be more complicated.
“I think we should be looking at it,” Sparck said, “because it really is going to inform our activities for our voter education, especially with ranked-choice voting in August, and then in November.”
The reasons for the rejections are not yet clear, but political writer Matt Buxton noted this week that high rejection rates appear to be correlated with the number of people who speak a language other than English at home.
Historically, the Alaska Division of Elections has struggled to reach non-English voters, particularly Alaska Natives. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide translations of voting materials in Alaska Native languages.
The state subsequently stepped up its translation efforts, but the short-notice by-mail special election for U.S. House left officials with little time to advertise ballot instructions to voters.
“I would suspect that people got the ballots in the mail and didn’t read the directions as closely as they could have,” said Bethel Mayor Mark Springer. “You know, my observation out here in Bethel is that the messaging on the voting process could have been more comprehensive.”
Historically, the No. 1 reason for rejected ballots is a voter’s failure to have a witness co-sign their ballot.
In 2020, when a federal judge waived the signature requirement because of the COVID-19 pandemic, rejection rates plummeted to historic lows, even as a record number of voters participated by mail.
This year, the witness requirement has returned.
Mike Williams Sr., chief of the tribal government in Akiak and a longtime Yup’ik leader, said he suspected the witness signature tripped up many voters.
That was troubling him from the start, he said.
“That’s what was worrying me. A lot of those votes that didn’t have a witness signature might have been thrown out,” he said on Thursday. “In my area in Western Alaska, with 56 villages, I’m really wondering if they understood that extra witness signature.”
Even he almost sent off his ballot without a witness signature.
“I knew that I had to recheck mine after I sealed it,” he said. He tore off the flap to check, saw that he had left the space blank, got his wife to sign and then put the ballot in the mail, he said. “So even me, I overlooked it,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, he supports the idea of both voting by mail and being able to rank choices.
“I support the ranked voting and everybody’s vote will count. I think Alaska is ready to have voting be easier for everyone,” he said.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that state law does not allow voters to fix problems with their ballots once submitted.
Legislation that would have created a “ballot curing” process — among other election reforms — failed to pass the Alaska Legislature on the last day of this year’s session.
With the legislature not in session, it isn’t clear whether any action could be taken this year.