The Alaska Division of Elections is set to finish counting ballots and finalize results Wednesday afternoon with a tabulation that will determine the outcome of several statewide and legislative races.
In elections for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor, all three incumbents — Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola and Gov. Mike Dunleavy — are in the lead and each appears to be on a path to victory.
But in both congressional races, the results won’t be final until election officials take into account voters’ ranked choice preferences. That’s because both Murkowski and Peltola have less than the 50% portion of first-choice votes needed to win outright.
Under Alaska’s new election laws, approved by voters through a 2020 ballot initiative, the top four vote-getters in the open primary advanced to a ranked choice general election. In general elections, voters could select their first-choice candidate, and then were given the option — but not the requirement — to indicate a second, and sometimes third, fourth and fifth choice.
In order to win outright, a candidate must garner more than half of first-choice votes. Dunleavy, who is seeking reelection after winning the governor’s seat in 2018, appears to be on track to win his race with just over 50% of votes.
If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes — as is the case in both congressional races — election officials run a tabulation to determine the winner. That means that the candidate in last place is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to remaining candidates based on voters’ second-choice preferences. That process repeats itself until two candidates remain; the candidate with the larger share of the votes is declared the winner.
The tabulation will be viewable via livestream on Wednesday beginning at 4 p.m. with live commentary from Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai.
Why the wait?
Two weeks after Election Day, the vast majority of races across the country have been called, but ballot counting continues in Alaska up until the day before Thanksgiving. That’s because state law allows absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day to arrive from overseas up until 15 days after Election Day. The late deadline for ballots to arrived and be counted predates the state’s new voting laws. But the lingering uncertainty over some races is the product of a decision by Alaska election officials to delay that tabulation until all votes are counted.
As of Friday, election officials had tallied nearly 265,000 ballots. Election officials are expected to release an additional and final ballot count on Wednesday before running the ranked choice tabulation.
Election officials this year decided to run a tabulation of results only once all ballots are counted. Nothing in state law stops them from running interim tabulations on results or from releasing interim counts of second-choice and subsequent preferences indicated on voter ballots, but officials have said they hope to avoid confusion by running a single, televised tabulation once all ballots are counted. Similar practices are in place in other jurisdictions using ranked choice voting.
While the winners of statewide and all 59 legislative races will be known on Wednesday, results won’t be set in stone until they are certified by the State Review Board. The board is set to certify the results on Nov. 29. Even then, candidates can request a recount or contest the election results up to 10 days after the results are certified, except in the governor’s race where the recount request must be filed within three days of certification.
Where do things stand now?
In the U.S. House race, Peltola — who won an August special election for the seat previously held by Rep. Don Young — commands just under 49% of first-choice votes. She’s leading her Republican challengers, former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, who have 26% and 23% respectively. Libertarian Chris Bye has less than 2%.
In the U.S. Senate race, Murkowski has just over 43% of first-choice votes. Her Republican opponent Kelly Tshibaka — who ran with the backing of former President Donald Trump and the Alaska Republican Party — is trailing Murkowski by 0.6% of first-choice votes. Democrat Pat Chesbro is in third with 10% of the vote. Republican Buzz Kelley is in fourth with 3%.
In the governor’s race, Dunleavy has just over half of first-choice votes. Democrat former state lawmaker Les Gara has 24% and independent former Gov. Bill Walker has 21%. Republican former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has 5%.
In most of the 59 open legislative seats — redrawn after a once-a-decade redistricting process — fewer than four candidates contended, and the majority of race outcomes will be known without a ranked choice tabulation because the leading candidate has a majority of first-choice votes.
Three out of 20 state Senate races and at least seven out of 40 state House races will come down to a ranked choice tabulation, with the leading candidate below the 50% threshold.
Who will control the Legislature?
After days of closed-door conversations among legislative candidates about chamber leadership, the debate over who would lead the state Senate spilled out into the public Tuesday.
The partisan makeup of the Senate appears likely to be split 11-9 between Republicans and Democrats. The nine Democrats have been in talks with moderate Republicans to form a bipartisan majority coalition, triggering pushback and last-ditch efforts to form a Republican-led majority by current Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.
Hughes, a right-wing Republican, on Tuesday publicly called for a Republican majority to form even as a bipartisan coalition seemed all but guaranteed, arguing in a written statement that since most Senate members will be Republicans, that is “a clear signal Alaskans believe a right-of-center Senate Majority is best for our state.”
Democrats and moderate Republicans have been signaling for days that they are confident about forming a coalition, after earlier results indicated Democrats would gain two seats this year.
“I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a coalition in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said last week. Begich did not run for reelection this year. “The question isn’t whether there will be one. The question is what size will it be? I have no doubt of that because we were very near getting it two years ago, when we only had seven Democrats.”
The fate of some House races remains in question, leading to lingering uncertainty over the formation of a bipartisan coalition similar to the ones that controlled the chamber in recent years. Tight House races in Anchorage that will come down to ranked choice tabulations could determine whether Democrats and centrist independents cross the 21-member threshold that would enable them to put together a majority.
Even without an outright majority of Democrats, left-leaning and centrist lawmakers have signaled they could put together a coalition that includes moderate Republicans. But that process could stretch for weeks. The legislative session is set to begin in mid-January.
With the possibility of bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate, some have publicly wondered about Dunleavy priorities for a second term and how he would work with a moderate Legislature. Dunleavy angered many moderate lawmakers with cuts to state services early in his first term.
Staffers for the governor’s office and Dunleavy’s campaign have not responded to several requests for comment in recent days.
Hughes said Dunleavy’s victory was an argument in favor of moving forward with Republican leadership in the Legislature, calling a bipartisan coalition “starting off on the wrong foot.”
But Begich, who worked last legislative session to advance an education bill that was one of Dunleavy’s priorities, said the governor is open to working on some priorities for centrist and left-leaning lawmakers, including reintroducing defined retirement benefits for state employees and legislation to reduce energy costs in rural Alaska.
“I believe that because it’s the second term of the governor, that the likelihood of a repeat of the first term is nil,” Begich told a crowd at the Anchorage Senior Center on Thursday.
“I think there’s going to be a willingness to work with folks. The question is, will we have the wherewithal and capacity to do it? Begich said. “Will we take the risk of the first step in reaching out and saying, ‘This is what Alaska will look like. Are we willing to do it?’ Because if we’re not willing to take the first step, I am damn certain the first step will never be taken.”