Here’s why Alaska is the slowest in the nation when it comes to vote counting

a sign that reads "polling place here"
A voting sign at Anchorage’s Hanshew Middle School on the morning of Election Day. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Questions, confusion and speculation about Alaska’s vote-counting process have erupted as state officials wait to count more than 100,000 absentee and other ballots until next week — long after other U.S. states count the vast majority of their votes.

Alaska won’t start tallying its remaining ballots — at least 40% of the total — until Tuesday at the earliest, making the state stand out as a gray island in the ubiquitous red and blue electoral vote maps used by national outlets.

It’s the only one to have counted less than 60% of its votes, according to figures collected by The New York Times.

The timeline is one that Alaska has used before. But in past years, the absentee vote count has typically been an afterthought that affects only the closest of races.

This year’s massive, pandemic-driven absentee turnout has changed that.

RELATED: Alaska US Senate race: Gross trails Sullivan but says math is in his favor

State officials said the wait stems from Alaska’s huge size and complicated logistics: It has polling places in dozens of villages with no road access. Officials said they also need the extra week to finish the time-consuming process of logging the names of each Alaskan who voted on Election Day, then cross-referencing with absentee ballots to make sure no one’s votes are counted twice.

But with other states finishing their counts and Alaska’s state legislative races and high-stakes U.S. Senate race still in limbo, some local and national political observers are increasingly questioning the schedule.

It’s also made the state and its lengthy timeline fodder for jokes, in a year in which officials have already been called to rebut assertions that it delivers ballots by dog sled.

One user on the social video platform TikTok, in a post that’s drawn more than 1 million views, said the wait in Alaska means that “by the time that they’re done tallying all the votes there, we’re going to have had, like, seven new presidents and be fully submerged underwater.”

The New York Times skewered Alaska’s “glacial pace” of tabulation in its own post late Thursday. And Anchorage resident Stephanie Quinn-Davidson quipped on Twitter that “Alaska isn’t going to count the ballots until companies change their shipping policies and treat us like we’re part of the United States.”

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who co-chairs the House State Affairs Committee with jurisdiction over elections, said he plans to review Alaska’s counting process once the dust settles on this year’s tally.

“Looking at the other states in the country, I do question: Why is it that we in Alaska don’t count our absentees that have arrived prior to Election Day, on Election Day?” Kreiss-Tomkins said in a phone interview. “It’s a question I’ve never asked before because in the past, absentees were not such a massive part of the vote total.”

Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has pre-filed a bill that would invite artists to design an original Alaskan license plate. (KCAW photo)
Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (KCAW)

Kreiss-Tomkins currently trails by 150 votes in his own re-election bid. But only 4,000 votes have been counted in his race, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” since more than 5,000 remain to be tallied next week that are expected to tilt Democratic.

Nonetheless, he’s received a barrage of messages from people around the state extending condolences for what the senders are interpreting as a defeat.

“I got a text this morning from a friend, a very average, normal, casual voter: ‘I’m so sorry! What a loss, un-smiley face. Thinking of you and hugging you super big,’” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I think the delay in counting absentees, without a doubt, creates a lot of confusion.”

The delay has also left national pundits speculating about the outcome of the state’s U.S. Senate race, which has an outside chance of tipping control of the chamber to Democrats.

Democratic Party-endorsed candidate Al Gross trails incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan by nearly 60,000 votes and needs to win at least 70% of uncounted ballots to pull back into contention. Sullivan’s campaign and even some Alaska progressives say that’s unlikely, but Gross still claims that “victory is within reach.”

“I am starting to pay a little attention to the Senate race in Alaska, which I had ignored when the numbers showed Sullivan ahead of Gross almost 2-1,” Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted late Thursday.

If mailed-in ballots break like other states, Ornstein added, Gross could still win, “which would be earthshaking.”

Alaska counted some of its absentee votes on Election Day in both 2016 and 2018. But this year, it returned to a ballot-counting schedule used in previous elections in an effort to guarantee that no one votes more than once, according to Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Alaska Division of Elections.

The decision was made months before Election Day, officials added, and the timeline was shared with campaigns and media.

“The division strongly believes in the legal requirement of one person, one vote,” Fenumiai said. “This should always take a priority over counting ballots quicker.”

In this year’s primary election, Fenumiai added, more than 80 people voted more than once, though officials have said none of those double-votes was intentional and that all were detected and screened out.

Why some people appear to vote twice in Alaska’s election data

Josie Bahnke, Alaska’s elections director in 2016 and 2018, declined to explain how, exactly, the state protected against double voting in those years. But Dermot Cole, a political blogger who’s questioned the state’s counting schedule, offered one idea in a column Wednesday: Why not review all the absentee ballots that have arrived at least a week before Election Day, then distribute a list of those voters to polling places so that they can be turned away if they try to vote again?

That’s impractical, officials said, because voter lists for certain polling places must be printed at least two weeks before Election Day in order for them to arrive in time.

It’s also not possible to start the counting absentee ballots before next week because the state doesn’t expect to receive all the lists of Election Day voters from Alaska’s 441 polling places until this weekend, Fenumiai’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Montemayor, wrote in a follow-up email.

Once the lists arrive, workers have to record the identity of each person who voted on Election Day by scanning individual bar codes, one at a time, she said.

“Then we start voter history for the absentee ballots we received thus far and detect any duplicate votes,” Montemayor said. “All of those things cannot be completed in one day, two days or three days.”

Bahnke, the previous elections director, endorsed the state’s decision to return to the week-long wait before starting absentee vote-counting, given the degree of complexity of this year’s election.

In addition to the pandemic, the state debuted a new online system this year that can be used to request absentee ballots, as well as new vote-counting machines, Bahnke said.

“I think all of those decisions combined probably led to the decision,” she said. “Which is understandable and should be supported.”

Election administrators, Bahnke added, face a “real balancing act” between security and efficiency.

Nonetheless, elections officials are facing growing criticism from some Alaskans who characterize the week-long wait to start counting absentee ballots as a failure.

Cole, the politics writer, also cites a section of Alaska law that requires review of absentee ballots to start at least a week before Election Day — and requires counting of reviewed ballots to start Election Night.

Fenumiai, in her emailed response, said ballots are not deemed eligible for counting until “duplicate voter research has been completed.”

Asked about technological improvements that could speed up the absentee-counting process, or whether the state plans to give the issue some attention after this year’s election, Fenumiai reiterated her view that “the legal requirement of one person, one vote should always take precedence over counting ballots quicker.”

But Cole said he thinks that the increasing adoption of by-mail voting both in Alaska and nationally will force a deeper discussion.

“This has been a trend — it’s not just the pandemic year that has seen this increase in absentee ballots,” he said. “If this continues, which it will, we just need to have a better accounting system to provide both election security and prompt results.”

Correction: Based on inaccurate information shared by the Alaska Division of Elections, this story originally mischaracterized the process that the state uses to record the names of Election Day voters. The names are recorded by workers scanning bar codes, not by typing them in one by one, as the story initially said. The story also originally said that voter lists are sent to polling places “several weeks” in advance, but that’s only the case for certain rural precincts.

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