JUNEAU — Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom denounced election misinformation this week in her first sit-down interview with news media since taking office.
Dahlstrom, a Republican elected to the lieutenant governor’s office in November as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s running mate, addressed election-related issues Tuesday for the first time since her November victory, saying that overseeing elections was her top priority but refraining from committing to advance specific reforms. Dahlstrom had declined to speak about her policy views prior to the election.
On the first day of the legislative session, Dahlstrom was tasked with overseeing both the House and Senate until they elected a speaker and president, respectively. As of Wednesday afternoon, both leaders were chosen by members of the bodies, freeing Dahlstrom to take up election-related matters — one of the top duties of Alaska’s lieutenant governor.
While some Republican lawmakers have already filed bills to eliminate ranked choice voting, Dahlstrom said she would not take an active position for or against the new voting method first used last year, which appeared to help more moderate candidates get elected at the expense of conservative Republicans.
[Alaska House elects Wasilla Republican Cathy Tilton as speaker]
Dahlstrom echoed some of the messages championed by her predecessor — Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who announced last year he would not run for reelection — about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, which has been questioned by members of her own party, and about the challenges created by election misinformation promoted by some Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump, who has refused to acknowledge his 2020 loss.
“People were saying things were corrupt before we even voted, before voting booths were even set up,” Dahlstrom said, referring to the 2022 election, when former Gov. Sarah Palin repeatedly made unfounded claims about Alaska’s new voting system during her unsuccessful campaign for U.S. House.
“I appreciate the fact that people have serious concerns and they want it to be full of integrity. I do, too. I absolutely do. But I don’t appreciate the fact when people put fear into others or make them feel like, ‘Why even vote? It doesn’t even matter.’ And that’s what I saw. I saw people just being disenfranchised,” Dahlstrom said.
Asked about the 2020 presidential election, Dahlstrom said she believed that Alaska’s election was “an election of integrity,” but declined to comment on the election as a whole, saying she doesn’t have “any information other than media stuff.”
During the last legislative session, the governor’s office put forward several election reform measures in a large omnibus bill that never made it into law. Dahlstrom said some of the provisions in those bills — which included ending automatic voter registration, creating a method to track absentee ballots, periodically auditing the registered voter list, purchasing voter signature verification software and creating a ballot curing process that would allow voters to fix mistakes on their ballot after it has been submitted — may be reintroduced this year. Sens. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, and Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, have already introduced bills that include some similar election-related measures.
“What we saw the last time was a couple bills that were very large-sized bills, and I think I would hope that one of the things we’ve learned is let’s take it at some smaller chunks instead of a great big thing,” Dahlstrom said.
Still, Dahlstrom said she did not yet know which pieces of legislation she would prioritize and whether any of the proposals advanced last year would be nixed.
“I’m not even prepared to give you topics right now,” Dahlstrom said. She later said that among the issues she would consider addressing would be changing the state’s automatic voter registration, which adds Alaska residents to the voter rolls when they apply for the Permanent Fund dividend unless they choose otherwise.
“We have so many unique opportunities and challenges in this state with locations and weather and transportation issues and communication issues, and just trying to look at all that. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to deal with all those issues, but we do, so I’m trying to look at the whole picture,” she said. “What have we done well? What can we change up a bit? What do we need to change? And who within the state — what other partners within our state, agencies — can help us with that?”
Dahlstrom said she is considering solutions to address challenges impeding elections in rural parts of the state. Last year, some polling places in predominantly Alaska Native rural communities did not open on time on Election Day because previously selected poll workers did not show up to work. In other places, ballots were not fully counted because they were not delivered in time to the Division of Elections.
“I am looking at different ways we could possibly have all the ballots picked up that evening. I’m looking at different communication methods. I’m looking at ways we could have teams that are sent to every single location so that if something happens and local workers are ill or for whatever the reason — the power goes out, they don’t wake up — that we have people there. I am looking at all those possibilities and trying to come up with anything we can do that would be a stopgap so that there’s nothing that would stop somebody from being able to vote during the advertised polling hour,” Dahlstrom said.
The Division of Elections is also facing a lawsuit for failing to offer a ballot curing process, after thousands of ballots were rejected last year in regions of the state where English is not the primary language spoken, including predominantly Alaska Native communities and lower-income neighborhoods of Anchorage.
“What I see as important is acknowledging that we do have these different language situations and some of them can be a barrier in some areas and for some people,” said Dahlstrom, adding that the Division of Elections may need to expand on the work already done by an Alaska Native languages expert.
‘The right person’
The long-standing director of the Division of Elections who oversaw the state’s first ranked choice elections, Gail Fenumiai, retired last month. That position is not yet filled, with Michaela Thompson, the division’s administrative operations manager, serving as interim director. Dahlstrom said she is still reviewing applications for the position and has not yet settled on a permanent director.
“There’s a list of people, and I don’t have an announcement yet,” Dahlstrom said. “The important thing is that it’s the right person.”
Dahlstrom said she is seeking a candidate with “trust and integrity and ability to read laws and statutes and willingness to work and look at ways we can change and improve.”
“There’s just so many things to consider, but we have a lot of qualified talented people in the state,” she said.
In the meantime, Dahlstom said she is impressed with the work of Division of Elections staff but is still examining ways the division can improve.
“We can always do better with whatever it is that we’re doing and that’s going to be the goal,” said Dahlstrom, adding that by being more transparent, the division could “make the public feel a little bit more secure about the process.”
Anchorage Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed to this story.