Alaskans line up at polls, as large number absentee ballots wait to be counted

people hold up signs that spell out "VOTE"
Volunteers and organizers with the Alaska Civic Engagement State (AKCES) Table gather on Election Day 2020 in Mountain View to remind residents to vote. AKCES is a nonpartisan group with 75 volunteers that have been showing up at the polls to support voter education and safety. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

There were long lines at polling places across Alaska on Tuesday, despite more votes being cast early and by mail than in the past. 

There were more than 161,000 votes cast absentee or early through Monday in the state. That total is more than half of the total number of Alaska votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. 

Listen to our live election coverage beginning at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

The Alaska Division of Elections reported in-person turnout at a sampling of 15 of the 441 precincts around noon on Tuesday. Turnout was a little less than a third of total turnout in the last presidential election. But since it was only a third of the way through the day, it wasn’t far out of line with previous years. 

Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai expressed hope on Monday that there would be in-person voting in every community. She noted one exception: Clark’s Point community members said they wanted no in-person voting. So the division has provided the community with absentee ballots. 

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By late afternoon, there were scattered reports of problems at polling places statewide, but no large-scale problems. It remained to be seen if more problems would emerge in the evening or after polls close. 

While news outlets are reporting high turnout nationally, the turnout in Alaska won’t start to become clear until in-person results are reported on Tuesday night. It’s not yet known whether the unprecedented number of absentee and early votes represent more voters than in the past, or whether people who already planned to vote moved up when they voted. 

All absentee ballots — as well as those in-person early votes cast after Thursday — won’t start to be counted by the Division of Elections until next Tuesday, Nov. 10. The division faces a deadline of Nov. 18 to count absentee ballots. 

Alaska is the last state in the country to begin to count absentee ballots. 

Fenumiai defended Alaska’s slower approach. 

PHOTOS: Election Day across Alaska

“The division believes the legal requirement of one person, one vote takes priority over counting ballots quicker,” she said.

The state uses that time to ensure that none of the absentee ballots were cast by people who also voted on Election Day. 

A state law says elections officials “shall” start counting absentee ballots at 8 p.m. on Election Day. Fenumiai said on Monday that the law means that the state can’t start counting absentee ballots before 8 p.m. 

“Duplicate voting is prohibited by statute as well, so we will not know whether the ballot should be counted and is eligible to count until the duplicate research has occurred,” she said.

The results announced on Tuesday night will include 37,995 early votes cast through Thursday, as well as the in-person results from Thursday. 

That still leaves roughly 123,000 early votes that had arrived through Monday to be counted next week, as well as thousands more absentee and questioned ballots that hadn’t yet arrived.

Alaska Public Media will report on results on Tuesday night, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. It will be streamed on Alaska Public Media’s site and broadcast on public radio stations throughout Alaska.