More than a third of all the votes cast in this year’s Alaska’s election won’t be counted until next week at the earliest — which means that an array of candidates and causes are stuck in limbo.
But with nearly 200,000 votes already counted, and at least 130,000 absentee and early ballots still to tally, campaigns and political operatives are now crunching the numbers and making predictions about which races are still in play, and which ones aren’t.
Both of Alaska’s incumbent Republican members of Congress, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, enjoy comfortable leads over their Democratic Party-endorsed challengers, Al Gross and Alyse Galvin. Sullivan’s edge is nearly 60,000 votes, while Young’s is 50,000, and political observers from both parties say they think it’s unlikely those leads will disappear.
The citizens initiative to raise oil taxes also trails by an imposing margin of 55,000 votes, while a separate proposal to overhaul Alaska’s elections faces a 24,000-vote deficit, which some argue may still leave a reversal within reach.
And though a half-dozen incumbent Democratic state legislators trail Republican challengers, those races are much tighter. Experts say they expect to see at least some come-from-behind victories after next week’s vote count, since Republicans were more willing to vote in-person on Election Day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lingering question, though, is how many races could flip, and just how much of a lead is insurmountable.
“I know some people are freaking out on the Democratic side,” Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski said in an interview Wednesday. “But you literally counted the Republican ballots last night, and you’re going to count the Democratic ballots next week. And you’re going to see change.”
Wielechowski, who was first elected in 2006, woke up Wednesday morning trailing his Republican challenger, Madeleine Gaiser, by more than 200 votes. But more than 5,000 absentee and early votes cast in his district won’t be counted until next week, and he said he’s certain those ballots will put him ahead.
Some 700 early votes were tallied in his race on Election Night — the state counts some early ballots later if they were cast after an Oct. 29 deadline — and two-thirds of them went to Wielechowski.
“I have no doubt that when it’s done, I’m going to win by a significant margin,” he said.
Wielechowski said he expects “a lot” of Democrats to come from behind once absentee and early votes are counted starting next week. He pointed to several races as likely to change, including those of Fairbanks incumbent state Reps. Adam Wool and Grier Hopkins, who each trail their Republican opponents by about 500 votes with around 3,000 still to count in each district.
But Republicans are more skeptical of the chances for outcomes to change. Conservative news blogger Suzanne Downing’s headline Wednesday was that the Election Day results were a “huge victory” for Republicans and a “routing of the liberal agenda.”
In a phone interview, she acknowledged that some Democrats in tight races could still come from behind — but she said she’s less sure about Wool or Hopkins.
“Most Republicans looking at last night’s results feel pretty comfortable that they’ve retaken the spirit of the state House, in terms of it being dominated by Republicans. And, of course, they’ve retained the Senate,” she said. “They did not lose any Republican seats.”
Nonetheless, lawmakers’ typical post-Election Night scramble to hash out leadership posts and committee positions is not following its typical schedule, said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham.
“Most of us recognize that this is a two-round process. We got through the first round tonight; the second round will be at least a week and possibly until the bitter end when all of the stragglers come in and all the votes have been counted,” Edgmon said in an Election Night phone interview. “At least the people I’m talking with, I don’t think they’re making their political beds just quite yet.”
While campaigns and political operatives now face a week-long wait before the remaining absentee and early ballots are tallied, they already have a lot of information about those uncounted votes: They know the names and party affiliations of the people who cast them, along with other hints about their political leanings kept in proprietary databases.
Campaigns can then use that data to make informed predictions about how the remaining votes will break down. For Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, for example, both Republicans and a number of progressives said Wednesday that it’s hard to see Gross, the Democratic Party-endorsed independent, making up his nearly 60,000-vote deficit to Sullivan, the incumbent Republican.
Of more than 100,000 uncounted absentee ballots, roughly one-fourth of were cast by registered Republican voters and one-fourth were cast by registered Democrats, suggesting that half of all the uncounted ballots are likely to cancel each other out. That means that Gross would have to win an overwhelming majority of the remaining ballots cast by independent voters, which Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Sullivan’s campaign, said is implausible.
“This isn’t just a guess. This is a very informed analysis,” Shuckerow said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Every vote will count — we think it should, and it will. But when we look at the numbers, we just can see that there’s no path to victory for the Gross campaign.”
Gross released a video Wednesday saying that “we knew from the beginning that this race was going to be close,” and that the uncounted ballots come from “very strong supporters.”
“Every vote will be counted, and at the end of the day, we still believe we are going to win,” he said.
A spokesman for Gross, Matt Lehner, added in an email that with some 40% of votes uncounted, “this race is far from over.” But he wouldn’t provide any details of the Gross campaign’s analysis of outstanding votes.
As for the initiative to overhaul Alaska’s elections, Scott Kendall, an attorney working with that campaign, said he still sees the race as within striking distance.
“When I look at the sheer number of outstanding ballots — a number that’s only going to grow — and our support for our measure among that group that voted by mail, I absolutely think the numbers are there,” Kendall said.
Brett Huber, the manager of the leading campaign opposing the elections initiative, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled typical voting patterns. But he said he thinks it’s very unlikely that the results will flip as much as they’d have to for the Election Night counts to change for either the elections initiative or the oil-tax initiative, which faces a much larger deficit.
“Trying to get back to a win for either ballot measure is like putting your entire stack of chips on double zero on the roulette wheel,” Huber said. “You’re going to get 36-to-1 odds, because it never happens.”
The state will start counting absentee and early votes beginning Tuesday. But any ballots postmarked by Election Day will still be counted as long as they arrive within 10 days, or 15 days for those sent from outside the country.
As many as 30,000 additional absentee ballots were mailed to voters that have not yet been returned, according to state statistics.