Voting in a pandemic: Alaska holds primary elections

Alaska held its primary elections on Tuesday, August 18. But this year’s elections were not as straightforward as walking into a poll booth and selecting one’s chosen candidates. As with every facet of life, COVID-19 has complicated the election season. The past few months, both in Alaska and nationally, have been filled with discussions about how to best conduct elections in the midst of a pandemic.
All Alaskan voters have the option to vote either absentee by mail or in person; voters in Nome who wanted to physically cast their primary ballots could do so at Old St. Joe’s last week. The issue this year is that polling places—which inherently encourage gatherings of people and contact with communal items—have the potential to be spreading grounds for the virus that causes COVID-19.
In Wisconsin last April over 50 people tested positive for COVID-19 after either working or voting at the polls. Concerned about exposure to the virus, a record number of voters—in the United States, Alaska and in Region IV, voted through mail-in absentee ballots. According to Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Division of Elections, the DOE issued 53,930 absentee by mail ballots during the 2020 primary. For comparison, in the 2016 primary the DOE issued only 8,715 absentee ballots. “This year was the highest amount we have ever issued for any election and we predict that the general election will be similar,” said Montemayor. Region IV, which includes Nome, was aligned with this trend: the DOE issued 1,112 absentee ballots for the region, compared to 251 in 2016.
The pandemic did not seem to deter Nomeites from visiting the polls in person, however. Even with the record number of absentee ballot requests both regionally and statewide, more people voted in-person at Old St. Joe’s on Tuesday than have in past primary elections.
In Nome, 394 registered voters physically cast ballots, an increase from both the 2016 and 2018 primaries. Statewide, primary participation is up as well. On Thursday, August 20 with 440 of the 442 precincts reporting, 79,637 ballots were cast in person, another 31,108 absentee ballots were received by the DOE and an additional 1,418 absentee in-person ballots were cast. According to Montemayor, this is a significant increase from the 2016 primary, when 88,817 votes were cast in total statewide.
As of press time, the final results from Alaska’s primary election are not yet available because the Alaska Division of Elections did not start counting absentee ballots until August 25, a week after the primary. This is a new measure taken to prevent individuals from casting multiple ballots, Montemayor said, adding that in the past some absentee ballots were included in the initial unofficial results on election night. Moreover, as long as they are postmarked before or on election day, absentee ballots can be received up to ten days after the date of the election. And, since a record number of Alaskans voted absentee, the outcome of some close races could change once these ballots are accounted for.
Unofficially, however, the biggest news from the regional races is that, in the Democratic primary for Representative for District 39, Incumbent Neal Foster of Nome is leading challenger Tyler Ivanoff of Shishmaref by a small margin of 38 votes. The sole Republican in the primary, Dan Holmes received 536 votes. Incumbent Senator for District T Donny Olson of Golovin ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, while Thomas Baker of Kotzebue has a roughly 130 vote lead over Calvin Moto II of Deering. Independent Al Gross won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate with about 75 percent of the vote, while incumbent Dan Sullivan ran unopposed in the Republican primary. Nonpartisan Alyse Galvin won the Democratic nomination for U.S. House of Representatives with 80 percent of the vote and incumbent Don Young won the Republican primary.
Once all absentee ballots are counted, the election still needs to be certified. Montemayor explained that the process by which the election is certified by the State Review Board has multiple steps. First the SRB reviews precinct registers, ballot tabulation tapes and summary sheets to assure that all election results are uploaded into the Voter Registration and Election Management System. Next the board reviews absentee voting facility accountability reports and absentee and questioned ballot registries to verify that these results have been recorded in the system. The last step in verifying the election is a hand count of one percent per district that accounts for at least five percent of the ballots cast in that district. The target date for certification of the 2020 primary, according to Montemayor, is August 30.
In addition to the pandemic, Alaska’s primary election was held in the midst of a lawsuit over voter rights. As background, some states automatically send ballots to voters prior to elections, while others automatically send out absentee ballot applications to all voters. In Alaska, any registered voter can cast an absentee ballot, but it is up to the individual to request that ballot. Anticipating a greater number of absentee voters this year, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer made the decision to streamline the absentee voting process. However, he only did so for a select population: Meyer decided to automatically send absentee voter applications only to voters 65 and older, explaining that this population is the most vulnerable to the virus. Last month, a group of organizations and two individuals filed a lawsuit against Meyer and the Alaska Division of Elections, arguing that the decision to selectively send out applications based on age is unconstitutional. Moreover, because older voters are disproportionately white, plaintiffs argue that Meyer’s decision is racially discriminatory and potentially an act of voter suppression, the suit claims.
According to Maria Bahr with the Alaska Department of Law, oral argument over the preliminary injunction (which asks that ballot applications be sent to all registered Alaskan voters as soon as possible), is scheduled for this week. As the case is just now being heard, a judge was unable to make a decision prior to Alaska’s primary election. Thus, the lawsuit did not impact how voting took place during the primary, but should plaintiffs prevail, it is possible that absentee ballot applications will be sent to all registered voters prior to November’s general election. Alaska Community Action on Toxics, or ACAT, is a plaintiff in the case. ACAT Executive Director Pamela Miller was disappointed that the lawsuit did not impact the primaries, but remains positive. The hope is that a judge will take expedited action with plenty of time prior to the general election. In the meantime, ACAT remains “fully committed” the lawsuit and voter education.
Miller believes that Meyer’s decision to limit absentee voting could reflect a national attitude. That is, in-person voting currently has its disadvantages, but the alternative—mail in voting—has also been subject to controversy. U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed concerns about mail-in voting, which Miller said is an attempt to discourage individuals from voting. Trump claims that voting by mail increases the likelihood of voter fraud, despite numerous studies determining that this is not the case. Miller referred to the association between voter fraud and voting by mail as “ridiculous,” adding that evidence suggests that this connection is “simply not true.”
According to Miller, a real worry for voters submitting ballots via mail is the speed of the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier this month, USPS warned Alaska, along with 45 other states, that general election ballots cast by mail may not arrive in time to be counted. These ballots would therefore be disqualified. The Postal Service has been experiencing delays related to changes enacted by new Postmaster General Luis DeJoy. “The President and others are working to diminish the postal service,” said Miller. Miller believes that postal delays as well as the information put out about voter fraud are both methods of voter suppression, in particular directed toward voters who may not vote for Trump.
After 20 states announced their plans to file lawsuits over postal delays, DeJoy said last week that he would hold off on implementing changes until after the November 3 election. Democrats in Congress are pushing a bill that would include $25 billion to help USPS accommodate the influx of ballots, which Trump opposes. The bill passed through the House last Saturday, but it is not expected to pass through the Republican dominated Senate.

 

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