Anchorage mayor’s race too close to call, with thousands of ballots left to count

A white man checks his phone with several other people around a bonfire
Forrest Dunbar checks his phone at a gathering with supporters on May 11, 2021. Dunbar held a narrow lead after the first round of ballots were counted, but a winner in Anchorage’s mayoral race isn’t expected to be announced until later this week. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Update 5:15 pm Wednesday:

Retired commercial pilot Dave Bronson took a slim lead in the runoff election for Anchorage mayor on Wednesday. With about 76,000 votes counted, Bronson leads over Assembly member Forrest Dunbar by 278 votes. Only about 4,000 votes were added to the count between Tuesday and Wednesday. 

By Tuesday night turnout in the runoff had already surpassed the general election in April. Deputy municipal clerk Erika McConnell said the elections center had received just over 80,000 ballots by Tuesday afternoon. She said they don’t have an estimate of the total number of ballots cast in the runoff yet, but votes cast on Election Day and by mail are still arriving. 

“We’re definitely going to break a vote-by-mail record. I haven’t looked back at the history of elections in Anchorage since 1975, since unification, but it’s gonna be up there,” she said. “It looks like we’re on track to break records.”

McConnell said observers from both the Dunbar and Bronson campaigns have been stationed at the elections center to watch ballot processing. Each campaign is allowed four trained, registered observers in the building. 

Original story:

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar is leading the race for Anchorage mayor by just over 100 votes according to the first batch of results posted Tuesday night. 

Dunbar has 36,075 votes, while his opponent Dave Bronson has 35,961, according to the first count. 

The results will change in the coming days as more ballots are counted. The final results are scheduled to be certified by the Assembly on May 25.

At a backyard barbeque with friends and campaign staff, Dunbar said he was hoping for a clearer victory.

“Well, it’s certainly better to be up than to be down. And we predicted it would be a close race, I don’t think anybody thought it would be quite this close,” he said. “This is a little bit like flipping a coin and having it land on its edge.”

A few miles away at a packed event hall in Taku/Campbell, Bronson thanked his volunteers and assured supporters that with mail-in ballots still waiting to be counted, the race is not over yet.

A room filled with people  an blue and yellow baloons
Supporters of Dave Bronson gather at an election-night event on May 11, 2021 (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

“So just hang on. We anticipated this, we knew it was going to be a tight race, but I think it’s going to break in our favor. Because that’s just the way it does. Conservatives vote late.” 

Bronson and Dunbar have run a close and contentious runoff race over the last month, and both were still campaigning in the last few hours before polls closed at 8:00 p.m. 

RELATED: Here’s where Bronson and Dunbar come down on major issues.

Turnout in the runoff election has already surpassed the general. Deputy clerk Erika McConnell said the municipal elections center had received just over 80,000 ballots by Tuesday afternoon, compared to a total of about 75,000 in the general election. Just over 72,000 runoff ballots have been counted so far.

A white man speakss into a microphone at a podium
Dave Bronson at an election day event on May 11, 2021. Bronson and his opponent in the Anchorage mayoral election are separated by just over 100 votes after the first batch of votes were counted, but the final results won’t be finalized for several weeks. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Earlier in the day Tuesday Dunbar said he thinks high turnout is a good sign for him. 

“We think it indicates that some folks that were voting in the first round are voting again … But then we have a new wave of voters, that we think are persuaded by how important this election is,” he said. “And we think that that will cut in our favor.”

RELATED: Polling suggests tight race for Tuesday’s hotly-contested mayoral runoff in Anchorage

Bronson said on Tuesday he wasn’t sure how turnout numbers would affect him, and that he was focusing instead on “get out the vote” efforts.

A recount is possible if the final tallies end up within a margin of 0.5%.

“It probably will head to a recount,” Dunbar said Tuesday night. “And it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some sort of legal challenge, though we don’t really know. I think it really depends on again, how the next few days go and how the votes break.”

Throughout the race, Bronson and Dunbar have painted each other as too extreme for Anchorage. As for their visions for the city, the two candidates appear to agree on little.  

Bronson has been deeply critical of Dunbar’s role in supporting the city’s emergency orders and pandemic health measures and says he would get rid of all remaining restrictions on day one. Dunbar says vaccinations, distributing federal aid quickly and overcoming the pandemic are central to the city’s economic recovery.

People sit around a bonfire
Campaign staff and friends of Forrest Dunbar gather at a backyard barbecue on election night, May 11, 2021 (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Bronson also says he would look at cutting all municipal departments’ budgets except police, while Dunbar says he wants to maintain the city’s balanced budget. To address homelessness, Bronson says the city should continue public-private partnerships but that law enforcement should also be part of the solution.