The Alaska Division of Elections is set to release final results of the special U.S. House race Wednesday afternoon — forcing organizers to scramble to reschedule a candidate forum to avoid having the candidates sitting on stage when the winner is announced.
Alaska’s first ranked choice election was held Aug. 16. After a 15-day waiting period dictated by Alaska’s election laws, results of the race will finally be unveiled by election officials Wednesday at 4 p.m., the Division of Elections said Tuesday afternoon. Democrat Mary Peltola and Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III were scheduled to meet for a 90-minute forum set to begin at 3 p.m. hosted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Under Alaska’s new voting system, the race is widely seen as a close one between Peltola and Palin.
Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said by phone Tuesday that the forum had been scheduled in July. But after she found out the Division of Elections had made a last-minute announcement to tabulate election results Wednesday afternoon, the association shortened the forum from 90 to 45 minutes, so it would end at 3:45 p.m. — 15 minutes before the winner is announced. The results, expected to be streamed live on Facebook, will be broadcast at the conference following the forum, the association said by email Tuesday night.
“It’s been a mess,” Moriarty said Tuesday afternoon. Election officials delayed announcing the exact time and way they would release tabulation results until just a day before the tabulation was set to take place, finally telling reporters by email on Tuesday at 2 p.m. that the tabulation would be streamed live online. The news was not shared with the public or with forum organizers.
Division of Elections spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said election officials had decided to run the tabulation Wednesday at 4 p.m. based on “what worked best to allow the state review board to maximize their time.” The board is tasked with certifying election results by Friday. The timing of the forum was not taken into account, Montemayor added. The tabulation will take place in the Juneau office of Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai, who will narrate the results as they appear on screen.
Nearly 192,000 ballots have been counted so far. With only first-choice votes tallied, Democratic former state lawmaker Peltola is currently in the lead with 39.6% of votes. Former Gov. Palin is second with 30.9%. Begich, a businessman and Republican member of a prominent family of Alaska Democrats, trails in third with 27.8%. Write-in candidates got around 1.6% of votes.
Under Alaska’s new election rules, the winner must get support from over half of voters. Since none of the candidates have reached that threshold with first-choice votes, the candidate in last place will be eliminated and election officials will use the second-choice selections of that candidate’s supporters to determine the winner.
With Begich in last, he is set to be eliminated, and the race will be determined by the number of his supporters who ranked Palin second; enough second-choice votes for Palin could put her over Peltola in the final vote count.
Palin, a polarizing figure in Alaska politics making her first run for office since her vice presidential bid in 2008, has support from many right-leaning voters in the state but is also disliked by others for her decision to quit as governor in 2009, her willingness to go against Alaska Republican Party leadership at times, and her decision to focus on lucrative TV and book deals since leaving the governor’s mansion 13 years ago.
Begich, who had the backing of many state Republican insiders leading up to the special election, was increasingly open about attacking Palin’s record in the lead-up to the election, which could impact the number of his supporters who marked her name on their ballots.
Political observers and pollsters call this race a toss up between Palin and Peltola — either could come out ahead. The winner is set to be the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat. Peltola would also be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.
Ranked choice voting experts have long said the system favors candidates who can build broad appeal and play by the ranked choice rules. Palin is neither — three in five Alaskans think negatively about her, according to multiple polls, and she has called Alaska’s new voting system “whack” and “cockamamie.”
Peltola has more closely adhered to the unwritten rules of ranked choice voting — she has refrained from attacking either of her opponents, focusing instead on drawing support on issues that many Alaskans agree on, like the need to protect fisheries and abortion access. Still, the victory of a Democrat could be seen as an upset — combined, the two Republicans in the race commanded nearly 60% of the vote.
Wednesday is the deadline for election officials to accept ballots from overseas voters. Election officials decided earlier this year they would delay the ranked-choice tabulation until all ballots are received — a decision praised by some experts for avoiding confusion and denounced by others for prolonging uncertainty.
Once results are tabulated, the Alaska Board of Elections is set to complete the process of certifying the results on Friday. What awaits the winner is a scramble to put together a congressional office as they continue to campaign ahead of November.
The special election results will determine who will fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat for the last four months of a term previously held by Rep. Don Young, who died in March. All three of the candidates on the special election ballot are set to appear on the general election ballot in November that will determine who will hold the seat for the next two-year term that begins in January.
Wednesday’s candidate forum is set to take place at the Dena’ina Center. It will be the first time all three candidates sit side-by-side since late June. Then, at a forum hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the candidates shared moments of laughter, took a selfie, and complimented each other. With results expected while forum is still ongoing, Wednesday could be a very different scene.
Peltola’s campaign manager Anton McParland called the timing of the tabulation “absurd” but said that Peltola — who marks her 49th birthday on Wednesday — is still committed to participating in the forum.
In a social media post made in the early hours Wednesday, Palin wrote, “if we don’t win congressional seat... we’ll employ other ways to fight for children’s future.” Palin, Begich and Peltola have previously said they would remain in the November race even if they lose the special election.
Campaign staffers for Peltola and Palin said they would leave the conference immediately after the forum ends to view results in separate Anchorage venues. Moriarty said Begich was expected to remain at the conference venue when results are announced.