Alaska elections official says 5th place finisher can’t fill vacancy on US House ballot. Sweeney campaign disagrees.

a portrait of a woman
Tara Sweeney (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska voters may only have three candidates to rank on the state’s first ranked choice ballot, reshaping the special election for U.S. House in August.

Candidate Al Gross, who won a spot on the special general ballot by finishing third in the primary, shook up the race by announcing Monday that he’s dropping out.

Several campaign consultants and election law experts opined that because Gross withdrew before the primary was certified, and before the deadline for dropping out, the fifth-place finisher, Republican Tara Sweeney, would advance to the special general election.

But the Division of Elections announced its interpretation Tuesday afternoon: “Because this withdrawal occurred less than 64 days before the election, Alaska law does not permit the fifth-place candidate to advance,” Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said in a letter.

Sweeney’s campaign sees it differently.

“We are looking at the question of a 5th place finish, but all information we’ve gathered is that 5th moves to 4th,” Sweeney campaign spokesperson Karina Waller said in a text message just before Fenumiai’s letter came out.

The dispute is likely to go to court. Fenumiai’s letter essentially invited a lawsuit.

“Any party that disagrees with these decisions should file suit immediately,” it said.

Her letter also says that Gross’s name won’t appear on the ballot.

The state’s new election law, adopted by voters in 2020 as Ballot Measure 2, doesn’t specifically describe this situation — a special election for U.S. House in which one of the four nominees drops out.

The father of Ballot Measure 2, attorney Scott Kendall, told the Alaska Beacon that the 64-day rule applies only to regular elections, not special elections. Kendall is working for Alaskans for T.A.R.A, an independent group that has raised $400,000 to promote Sweeney.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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