The announcement that made Democrat Mary Peltola the winner of Alaska’s special U.S. House election came in the form of a blurry live video on social media that left many viewers confused, even as ranked choice voting advocates hailed Alaska’s election under the new voting rules as a success.
Thousands of viewers from Alaska and beyond tuned into the Division of Elections livestream at 4 p.m., when election officials gathered in a Juneau office where tabulation took place. The video, viewed as of Thursday by 15,000 people, was described by viewers as “blurry,” “laggy” and “disappointing.”
“Nice Internet you got there, Alaska,” a commenter wrote two minutes into the stream.
Still, ranked choice voting advocates and political observers commented on how smoothly Alaska’s first ranked choice election had gone, in a special U.S. House election that came together in less than six months. The election was triggered by the March death of Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican who was the state’s sole U.S. House member for 49 years. The special election determined who will serve out Young’s term, which ends in January. Another ranked choice vote is coming in November for the next full U.S. House term.
“Maybe a C- on the presentation but an A+ on the execution,” said Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney who was one of the architects of the 2020 ballot measure that implemented ranked choice voting in Alaska.
The praise came as one of the candidates in the race — Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin — again denounced ranked choice voting after she failed to win the special election, calling the state’s new election laws “crazy, convoluted, confusing.” Palin is still a candidate for the general election in November that will determine who will hold the seat for the regular two-year term that begins in January.
Under Alaska’s election laws, tabulation — the process that would reveal the winner in the three-way ranked choice race — wouldn’t take place until 15 days after the Aug. 16 election results, when the majority of ballots from the vast state would be scanned and counted. People across the country reacted in surprise as the tabulation process revealed Peltola had overtaken Republican rivals Palin and Nick Begich III, becoming the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman to hold Alaska’s at-large House seat.
“Ranked choice voting was sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people. As Alaska — and America — now sees, the exact opposite is true,” Palin said in a statement. Nearly 60% of Alaska voters indicated their first choice was a Republican candidate — either her or Begich. But more than a quarter of Begich’s voters indicated that Peltola is their second choice.
As Palin railed against the state’s new voting system, Peltola on Thursday basked in newfound national attention and celebrated the voting system that landed her victory, saying Alaska “luckily” has ranked choice voting on a “PBS News Hour” interview. Her victory came as she embraced the voting system that appeared to reward her positive and policy-driven campaign. Political observers across the country collectively wondered who was the Democratic Alaska Native who could outperform the Republican celebrity — overnight, Peltola saw her Twitter followers go from less than 23,000 to over 117,000.
Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said Thursday the decision to reveal election results by livestream was because she wanted the process to be “as transparent as possible.” But she acknowledged the execution left room for improvement.
“People probably thought it was done not in the most professional manner, but given that we had about 24 hours to pull it together, it was, I thought, the best we could do at the time. Hopefully we’ll be able to plan a little bit ahead of time for the general and make it be a little more to the public’s liking,” Fenumiai said.
In November, Alaska’s elections for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governor and 59 legislative seats will be determined by ranked choice voting.
‘Technical, precise and a little bit boring’
The livestream began with election officials talking about technical difficulties, with a cellphone camera trained on a large screen displaying the results. Officials said they could not simply share the screen itself since the voting machine that ran the tabulation is not connected to the Internet to protect its security.
Responses from viewers began to appear in the comment section: “Can’t hear a thing. Video is horrible,” one person wrote. “What the heck are they doing?” asked another.
An election worker clicked the “tabulate” button four minutes into the stream and the tabulation instantly showed Peltola’s name in green, Palin’s and Begich’s in red. But several seconds went by before Fenumiai announced the apparent winner, tripping over Peltola’s name.
Fenumiai then narrated a detailed report showing how Begich — who had the fewest first-choice votes — was eliminated from the race and his second-choice votes were redistributed to Palin and Peltola.
“So, that ends RCV for the U.S. special election for representative,” Fenumiai said, chuckling, before the video cuts out.
The preliminary results report was posted on the Division of Elections website 40 minutes after the live video concluded. The results are expected to be finalized Friday after the state board of elections certifies them,
Bemused reactions by political observers soon streamed in. “Can someone explain what happened with the division of elections live stream situation,” Shannon Mason, deputy press secretary to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, wrote on Twitter.
Dunleavy himself appeared to withhold judgment on the new system. The Republican incumbent running for reelection said at a candidate forum on Thursday that “we’re going to have to see how this pans out. It’s definitely a brand-new approach to voting. It’s too early to tell. I think we’ll be able to do a post-game when this is wrapped up.”
Kendall said Thursday that the Division of Elections should not have filmed the results on a phone camera. “But the information they presented — the tabulation itself — was done incredibly transparently and soundly,” he said.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows called the livestream “a good reminder that election administration is technical, precise and a little bit boring.” Maine is the only other state to hold a ranked choice congressional election, and Bellows has recommended streaming results live as a way to build trust in the process.
“We’ve always done that and while watching the tabulation of an election can be as exciting as watching paint dry, having that level of transparency goes a long way in helping voters understand how the process works,” Bellows said in an interview last month.
Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a national organization that advocates for ranked choice voting, said he watched the livestream and is “just appreciative of the fact that they did it.”
“They presumably will smooth out some of the details so it’s that much easier to follow” ahead of the general election, Richie said, calling it “a great practice.”
Richie praised the Division of Elections’ execution of the election, noting the minuscule number of spoiled ballots that were tossed out due to voters filling out their ballots incorrectly — less than 0.5% of the 192,000 ballots were tossed.
As for Palin’s criticism of the system, Richie and Kendall both said the statement indicated that she may not understand how to campaign under the new rules.
“Why on earth would you degrade a system that is literally your only hope of winning?” Kendall said.
Republican state lawmakers have already indicated they plan to float bills to repeal parts of Alaska’s new voting laws in the legislative session set to begin in January. But Kendall said the success of the special election would make arguments against ranked choice voting come across as disingenuous.
“The ‘oh, it’s too confusing’? — that’s in the toilet now. That argument is gone,” he said. “All the good faith arguments for repealing it are gone. So a repeal would have to be a wholly partisan exercise, and I don’t think the people will stand for it, because we have seen in polling number that the system over time has become more and more popular.”
Polling conducted by Alaskans for Better Elections, the group behind the ballot initiative, found that 85% of voters found voting in the Aug. 16 election to be “simple.” The same poll found that 62% of respondents favored the new voting system, while a third of respondents opposed it.
The livestream was broadcast to a roomful of politicians and oil executives at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage. But the blurry close-ups on vote tallies and stilted audio made it difficult to immediately understand who had won; the results weren’t met with any audible reaction as conference-goers, including a former governor and lieutenant governor, tried to make sense of what they were seeing onscreen.
Afterward, some said the announcement was anticlimactic and confusing, in part because the results were difficult to see and it was not immediately clear that Peltola was the winner.
“It could have been clearer,” said Erin McKay, who owns Evergreen Compliance Systems, involved in pipeline compliance at projects nationally.
Fenumiai said Thursday the live video came together as a last-minute decision, and she hopes the quality will be improved in November.
“On Tuesday, I’m like, ‘I really think we should do some kind of a livestream so people could see the process as it’s happening,’ " she said, adding that she didn’t have time to consider putting together a livestream earlier in the process.
‘Outside our control’
Fenumiai said the division is not planning to make any changes to the timeline nor the way results are announced ahead of November. Then, the tabulation will take place the day before Thanksgiving, the last day the division can accept overseas ballots.
“I can’t control the statutory deadline. The 15th day is the day before Thanksgiving and I think the candidates involved will be very ell aware of that deadline,” she said.
All along, the Division of Elections reasoned their decision to withhold final release of full results until 15 days after election day to ensure all ballots are counted before the tabulation. But as of Thursday, more than 300 ballots from rural communities across Alaska were still missing.
The ballots were mailed from rural precincts — including Anvik, Grayling, Nightmute, Diomede, Hooper Bay, Teller and Kaktovik — to the Juneau office for ballots to be scanned. Before sending the ballots by mail, the first-choice and primary votes were counted, but the second-choice votes were not tallied.
If the ballots don’t arrive by Friday, when the state board of elections is scheduled to certify the results, those second-choice votes will not be added to the final tally, according to Fenumiai.
“We’ve counted their first choice votes. Unfortunately, any secondary, third and tertiary votes for the special general election would not be able to be applied,” Fenumiai said.
The ballots were mailed to Juneau from rural communities — which lack the machines to scan the ballots — by business reply mail. Fenumiai said the division planned to mail ballots using express mail in the November election to avoid a similar problem.
“Unfortunately, the division relies heavily on the U.S. Post Office. We don’t have control over their processes. We also are faced with dealing with weather in Alaska which is also very unpredictable and is an element outside our control,” she said.
As for her overall performance in running Alaska’s first ranked choice election, Fenumiai declined to give herself a grade.
“I don’t grade myself. I just give kudos to our team here,” she said, adding that she was pleased with the ballot design, the instructions printed on the ballots and the voter education program that appeared to contribute to the election’s success.
“From what we heard, people did not find how to complete your ballot as complicated perhaps as they first thought it might have been,” she said.