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Why Vote Counting in Alaska Takes a Long Time

Why Vote Counting in Alaska Takes a Long Time
Begich is facing a competitive re-election challenge. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An Alaska Senate race has the potential to once again remain undecided well after the election, and this time the wait could keep control of the Senate up in the air until at least mid-November.

December and January runoffs are possible in two other states with Senate races, so it could be even longer before either party can claim a majority of seats in the chamber in the next Congress. Senate Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control.

But the reason for the holdup in Alaska is, like the state itself, unique. In the Last Frontier State, the regular delay in races being called is largely a product of two confluent circumstances: close contests and an increased emphasis by campaigns on absentee voting, a get-out-the-vote method pushed to help compensate for the state’s travel and voting complications.

The need to encourage absentees is a reality in one of the most topographically challenging states for campaigns in the country. Prop planes are often required for candidates to reach the state’s vast rural areas and even for timely travel between cities close in proximity but separated by mountains or water. And state officials running the election face similar logistical hurdles: All ballots are eventually transported by air to Juneau, a capital only accessible by boat or plane.

Both parties, at least at this point, are expecting another tight contest there, this time between Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and his Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan. Begich’s defeat of GOP incumbent Ted Stevens in 2008 wasn’t called for more than two weeks. Stevens actually led on election night, but Begich pulled ahead once absentee ballot counting commenced.

“I think it will be potentially the same thing,” Begich said in an interview with CQ Roll Call at the Capitol just before Congress left town last month for the final weeks of the midterms. “It is going to be a 1- or 2-percent race.”

Republicans believe Sullivan, the former appointed state attorney general and commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, can unseat Begich, but neither side at this point expects a wide margin of victory in either direction.

While election night counting in Alaska can have its own complications, a close race would mean waiting for mailed absentee ballots to come in.

According to the vote-counting schedule recently finalized by Alaska elections officials, absentee ballots postmarked from within the United States must be received by Nov. 14 and counted by Nov. 19 — concluding 15 days after the election. The targeted certification date following an audit by the state review board is Nov. 28, but media organizations will likely use unofficial results to make their own calls on the race before then.

In response to a question about the unique circumstances in Alaska, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told CQ Roll Call there is typically an effort to get fishermen to vote absentee, since so many Alaskans work on commercial fishing boats and are often at sea on Election Day.

“In November, that will be crab season, so you will have a lot of guys in the middle of the Bering Sea in pretty snotty weather,” Murkowski said in the Capitol last month. “We try to make a point to encourage those in our fishing community to vote absentee because you never know if you are going to be able to be on shore and able to vote. It takes an extra effort, but it’s worth it.”

That includes Murkowski’s sons, whom the senator pushed to fill out absentee ballots for the Aug. 19 primary before heading out to sea. But they didn’t, so the senator contacted the boat’s owner to make sure they’d be in port delivering fish on the morning of the election.

While the campaigns, national parties and super PACs are dropping millions of dollars in advertising on the race, both campaigns are also putting an emphasis on field efforts, hoping a personal touch — knocking on doors, talking to neighbors and friends — in some of the state’s most remote towns and villages can get out a few extra votes.

In coordination with the state party, the Begich campaign has 16 offices open around the state, including one in Haines, a city in Alaska’s southeastern corner with a population of less than 2,000.

The Sullivan campaign was able to conduct a test run on its ground game in the primary. It has dozens of regional volunteer coordinators and hired Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, a former Murkowski aide, for outreach to rural and Native Alaskan communities. Like Begich, Sullivan is encouraging supporters in these areas to vote early or by mail.

The preparation and execution of campaigns and elections in Alaska offers plenty of challenges related to hard-to-get-to far reaches of the state.

“The geographic mass and having to get the materials to and from all of these locations takes time and is very costly and is quite a challenge,” said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections.

Becka Baker, the state elections supervisor for much of rural Alaska, said she has to start recruiting election workers and scheduling polling sites in March, partly because of communication issues.

“We rely on the U.S. Postal Service to get our agreements to and from our election workers, because not everybody is connected to the internet or has access to email,” Baker said.

By the time Election Day rolls around, elections officials may also have Alaska-specific, last-minute changes to make. That includes needing to find emergency polling places because of broken heat or frozen pipes. Those are rare occurrences, but they do happen, Baker said.

Of the 441 precincts in Alaska, paper ballots are counted by hand in 137 and by optical scan in the remaining 304. In accordance with federal law, every precinct also has a touchscreen voting unit, but Fenumiai said only about 1 percent of voters statewide use them. Once the votes are tallied, rural precincts phone in their results.

“It’s not like we are delivering the votes by dogsled in to Anchorage,” Murkowski quipped.

No, but there can be hiccups, and votes don’t always get called in on election night.

“There are situations where it’s 1, 2, 3 in the morning, and we haven’t been able to get results from our hand-count precincts just because they’re tired,” said Fenumiai. “They just give up and go home, and then come back the next day to count their ballots and send us in their results.”

That’s something to think about for those East Coast political observers waiting up to see what happens.

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