With more than 27,000 additional ballots counted on Tuesday, the three incumbents in Alaska’s statewide races appear poised for victory in their respective races, but final results won’t be known until election officials finish counting ballots and tabulate ranked choice results on Nov. 23.
Election officials issued a new ballot tally on Tuesday — a week after voting ended. The ballots counted on Tuesday do not include ones from rural Alaska. Several thousand ballots remain to be counted according to the Division of Elections.
Election officials are expected to issue another results update on Friday, which is also the deadline for the Division of Elections to receive absentee ballots mailed from within the U.S., as long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day. The division will release additional and final results on the 15-day post-election mark, which falls one day before Thanksgiving, when they will also tabulate results in all races where the top candidate doesn’t reach the 50% threshold needed to win outright.
Murkowski nearly tied with Tshibaka, with ranked choice on her side
In the U.S. Senate race, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is nearly tied with Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka in the number of first-choice votes. The additional ballot tally put Murkowski less than 0.3% — or less than 600 votes — behind Tshibaka. And Murkowski appears to be in a strong position to win under ranked choice voting.
Murkowski’s positive showing in absentee and early votes counted Tuesday narrowed the gap between her and her opponent, on the same day that former President Donald Trump — Tshibaka’s key backer — announced he would make another run at the presidency.
While Tshibaka appeared almost certain to lose her race, her campaign adviser Mary Ann Pruitt did not acknowledge that, saying in a statement that it was “an ominous sign” for Murkowski “to be trailing at all at this stage of tabulations.”
Murkowski’s campaign spokesperson said the results were in line with what the campaign had been expecting.
“Our campaign was confident in the positive trend we were seeing on election night, and that Lisa would perform strong in the absentee and early vote. That has clearly happened today, and we remain confident that this trend will continue as all the outstanding votes are counted,” said Murkowski spokesperson Shea Siegert, in a statement Tuesday evening.
In third place was Democrat Pat Chesbro with 10% and in fourth was Republican Buzz Kelley with less than 3%. Kelley dropped out of the race soon after the primary but his name still remained on the ballot.
Neither of the leading candidates in the Senate race is expected to reach the 50% threshold needed to win outright — they both currently have 43% of first-place votes. That means the race will come down to a ranked choice tabulation. Under that tabulation, Kelley will be the first candidate eliminated, and his votes will be redistributed to the remaining candidates based on his supporters’ second-place preference, if they indicated one. Kelley endorsed Tshibaka and at least some of his votes will likely go to her.
Next to be eliminated will likely be Chesbro, who campaigned on issues including preserving abortion access, improving environmental protection and strengthening gun control measures. Many of her supporters are expected to rank Murkowski second, likely solidifying the incumbent’s victory.
While Murkowski is in a strong position to retain her seat, Tshibaka has indicated in interviews with right-wing media outlets this week that she is “bracing” for challenges to the election result that could include recounts and lawsuits. Murtaugh, with Tshibaka’s campaign, said last week he was not aware of any specific cause to doubt the election results but that the campaign is preparing for different contingencies.
Murkowski, meanwhile, returned to Washington earlier this week for the post-election, lame-duck congressional session.
Dunleavy maintains strong lead
Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy is the only statewide candidate currently with more than 50% of the vote needed to win without a ranked choice tabulation. As of Tuesday, Dunleavy had 51% of the first-choice votes with nearly 233,000 ballots counted.
In second place was Democratic former state lawmaker Les Gara with nearly 24%. Independent former Gov. Bill Walker was in third with 20%. In fourth was Republican former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce with less than 5%.
In the governor’s race, Gara and Walker both levied harsh attacks on Dunleavy’s record in their respective campaigns, but the results so far indicate voters broadly approved of Dunleavy’s record. Supporters of Dunleavy cited in interviews this year’s Permanent Fund dividend, which was one of the largest in state history and remitted to Alaskans weeks before the election. They also cited the governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which avoided some of the pitfalls seen in other states.
While results won’t be final for more than a week, Dunleavy is already acting on his apparent victory. On Monday, he appointed Adam Crum — the state’s current Department of Health commissioner — to serve as revenue commissioner starting Wednesday. Dunleavy also appointed as chief of staff Tyson Gallagher, who had been serving in the role on an interim basis since July.
Several other department commissioners departed during the final months of Dunleavy’s term — common practice in an election year — leaving many positions to be filled permanently in the coming months. The commissioner appointments are subject to approval by the Legislature.
Peltola strengthens lead in U.S. House race
In the U.S. House race, Democrat U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola strengthened her lead to more than 48% of first place votes. Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin was in second with 26% and Republican businessman Nick Begich III was in third with nearly 24% of the vote. In fourth was Libertarian Chris Bye with less than 2%.
Both Republicans had been campaigning on a “rank the red” message and on the argument that Alaska was too red to elect a Democrat for its lone U.S. House seat. But neither appeared likely to coalesce enough support to overtake Peltola.
Like Murkowski, Peltola is back in Washington this week. Peltola, who was elected in an August special election fill out a term previously held by Rep. Don Young, made appearances at the new member orientation.
Begich and Palin were also invited to the new House member orientation, along with other leading candidates in undecided races. Neither were attending the orientation as of Monday. Palin attended an event late last week in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Freedom Caucus — the House’s most conservative faction. Palin was back in her home in Wasilla on Wednesday, where she watched Trump — who backed her campaign — announce his 2024 presidential bid.
Voter turnout lags with more ballots to come
Some election observers have noted the relatively low number of ballots counted so far. At nearly 243,000 ballots counted as of Tuesday, the state is still far below the high water mark set in the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, when around 285,000 Alaskans cast their ballots. Election workers say there are more ballots to be counted, but without a significant jump in the ballot tally, the number of Alaskans participating in this election will be lowest since 2010.
For now, political observers are cautious not to draw too many conclusions on voter turnout until the numbers are final. Nationwide, the overall participation rate in the midterm election is still being calculated. Only a handful of states appear to have exceeded their voter turnout rates from 2018.
Notably, Alaska’s voter turnout rate may appear lower when compared to rates in previous years because of a change in state law. In 2016, Alaska voters approved a ballot measure to automatically register eligible voters when they apply for the Permanent Fund dividend. Since then, the number of registered voters has increased by more than 70,000 even as the Alaska population has decreased by roughly 8,000.
It’s too early to say if Alaska’s new voting system played a role in keeping voters from the polls, and many factors contribute to turnout — including the fact that after the August special election, some voters reported “election fatigue.” But so far, it appears that despite disparaging remarking about Alaska’s new voting system by some candidates — Palin chief among them — voters overall found the ranked choice method straightforward.
Alaskans for Better Elections, the group advocating for ranked choice voting, commissioned a poll after the election that found that a majority of Alaskans found the ranked choice voting system to be “simple,” but more people found it “difficult” when compared to the August special election. In August — Alaska’s first election using ranked choice voting — 85% of Alaskans reported the system to be simple. In November, it was down to 79%.
Amanda Moser, chief strategy officer with Alaskans for Better Elections, attributed the drop to the difference between primary and general election voters.
“In the first poll we spoke with primary voters who tend to be more election focused and the second poll was the broad general election voters,” she said. “But we clearly see a high level of understanding in both groups.”
One apparent result of the ranked choice voting was that very different candidates, all incumbents, appeared to be leading their statewide races: a Democrat in the U.S. House race, a moderate Republican in the U.S. Senate race, and the Trump-endorsed Republican in the governor’s race.
Scott Kendall, the Anchorage attorney who crafted Alaska’s new election laws, said the early results indicate that “Alaskans have complex bundles of values. And what the system does is it lets people build very very different coalitions.”
“Alaskan voters vote a la carte. They are freed — sort of unshackled — to vote very differently,” Kendall said. “It’s resulted in a place where I think very different groups of people will have their favorite person win one race but maybe their least preferred person win another race.”