Supreme Court declares Dean Westlake winner of House District 40 Primary race

Members of the Alaska Supreme Court today reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated Dean Westlake as the winner of the Democratic primary in House District 40. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Members of the Alaska Supreme Court today reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated Dean Westlake as the winner of the Democratic primary in House District 40. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska Supreme Court is sending Dean Westlake to Juneau.

In a decision late Wednesday afternoon, the court reinstated Westlake as the winner of the Democratic primary in House District 40, which covers the North Slope and Northwest Arctic.

It reversed a lower court ruling last week which had tipped the election to the incumbent representative, Benjamin Nageak of Barrow.

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Reached by cell phone in Kotzebue just after the order was issued, Westlake said he was “absolutely ecstatic.”

Dean Westlake is challenging Barrow Rep. Bennie Nageak in the Democratic primary; in 2014, Westlake lost the race by 131 votes. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk
Dean Westlake is challenging Barrow Rep. Bennie Nageak in the Democratic primary; in 2014, Westlake lost the race by 131 votes. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Anchorage)

“When I got the news, I just had to go for a ride,” Westlake said, laughing. “I was sitting in my office, and I thought, this is wonderful, that people that go to vote understand that absolutely no one is going to take that right away from you.”

Nageak could not immediately be reached.

The Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in the disputed primary election.

The arguments centered on events in the village of Shungnak, where poll workers let all 50 voters cast ballots in both Democratic and Republican primary races in August, instead of requiring them to choose.

The state admitted that was a mistake. But Assistant Attorney General Laura Fox, representing the Division of Elections, argued those votes should still count. Democratic primaries are open to anyone, so all the voters were eligible to participate, and it was only possible to vote once in this race, Fox said.

“They all only got one vote in this race, and this is the only race that’s been challenged, and the only race that the court has to look at here,” Fox said.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, Feb. 4, 2015. He was speaking as the primary sponsor of HJR 10, a resolution opposing the revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Rep. Benjamin Nageak addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, Feb. 4, 2015. He was speaking as the primary sponsor of HJR 10, a resolution opposing the revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Nageak’s lawyers argued that if poll workers had followed the rules, at least a few of those voters would have chosen the Republican ballot and never voted in the Democratic primary at all —  possibly changing the outcome. Westlake won 47 of 50 votes in Shungnak, and he won the race over all by just 8 votes.

Last week, the lower court agreed with Nageak and threw out 12 votes in Shungnak — and two in Kivalina — giving Nageak the win.

The lower court based that number on testimony from former Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich, who calculated the average number of voters who chose the Republican-only ballot in the last four elections.

The Alaska Republican Party has supported Nageak’s challenge. Although he’s a Democrat, Nageak caucuses with the Republican majority in the state House.

In its appeal, the state called Ruedrich’s calculation “nonsensical.” Fox pointed out that Ruedrich used raw numbers without adjusting for voter turn-out, and the state’s brief suggested he chose to include only those past elections that favored his conclusion

The justices seemed to agree.

“Is that really a matter for expert testimony? It’s just math,” Justice Joel Bolger said to Nageak’s attorney, Stacey Stone.

Bolger noted that Ruedrich’s math only included elections back to 2008, even though the attorney’s brief included numbers going back to 2006.

“Is there anything in the record that shows why the 2006 results were neglected?” he asked.

“No, your honor, the only reason those results were neglected is because of the speed at which this trial happened,” Stone replied.

“But it only takes a moment to calculate these averages,” Bolger said.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Craig Stowers seemed troubled that nobody had actually asked anyone in Shungnak how they meant to vote. He said no amount of math could tell the court which ballots voters would have chosen, especially when there was a hotly contested race on the Democratic ballot, and not on the Republican one.

“Could not these villagers, who knew a lot about these candidates, and were very interested in this particular election, have decided to choose all, or substantially all, of the ballots from the ADL?” he asked. The ADL ballot included the Democratic Party, Alaska Independence Party and Libertarian Party primaries.

The five justices arrived at their decision within hours. In a two-paragraph order issued Wednesday afternoon, they reversed the lower court’s decision, upholding the original election results.

Only Justice Daniel Winfree dissented, arguing the entire election should be voided and held again.