Democratic U.S. House Candidate Mary Peltola hugs a supporter during a campaign event in Juneau on Friday. Peltola emerged as the top finisher in the first round of results on election night, but is facing two better-known Republican challengers who may prevail when the new ranked choice ballots get a final tabulation Aug. 31. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Democratic U.S. House Candidate Mary Peltola hugs a supporter during a campaign event in Juneau on Friday. Peltola emerged as the top finisher in the first round of results on election night, but is facing two better-known Republican challengers who may prevail when the new ranked choice ballots get a final tabulation Aug. 31. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Update: Unofficial results roll in

Peltola, Murkowski take early leads

This is a developing story.

Election night summary: 11:20 p.m.

With late night results still trickling in, Democrat Mary Peltola in the special U.S. House race and incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski in the U.S. Senate primary emerged as the surprise leaders in the first rounds of votes released on an unprecedented election night in Alaska. But the final results for them and in the governor’s race may be markedly different when all absentee votes are received and tallied on Aug. 31.

Peltola is leading with 44,010 votes (37.63%) over Republicans Sarah Palin with 38,773 votes (33.15%) and Nick Begich III with 34,172 votes (29.22%) with 233 of 402 (57.96%) of precincts reporting. The special election to fill the remainder of the late Don Young’s term is the state’s first ranked choice voting contest, where votes from residents’ second- and then third-choice candidates will be added to totals if no candidates gets a majority of first-choice ballots.

That tally will not occur until Aug. 31. Polls suggest Begich would win a ranked choice vote against Peltola, but Palin’s 65% negative approval rating would likely result in a head-to-head loss against Peltola.

Polls also showed Murkowski trailing Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka by a significant margin among Republicans, but the incumbent maintained a narrow lead with 51,025 votes (42.73%) to the challenger’s 49,383 votes (41.35%).

The primary is also a first-time election event. It was open to all parties and the top four finishers will advance to November’s general election. Democrat Patricia Chesbro is in third place as expected, but far below some polling predictions with 7,363 votes (6.17%). The fourth and final spot is currently going to Buzz Kelley with 2,744 votes (2.3%) — a surprise to many observers. Tshibaka told the Anchorage Daily News she suspects many of the votes cast for Kelley were intended for her because her campaign slogan is “Kelly for Alaska.”

All three candidates in the special U.S. House race are competing in the regular primary for the full two-year term, getting roughly the same percentages as the special election votes. The fourth spot is currently going to Republican Tara Sweeney with 3,898 votes (3.26%) and no other candidate receiving more than 0.65%.

In the governor’s race incumbent Republican Mike Dunleavy maintains a dominant lead with 50,180 votes (42.25%), with independent Bill Walker in second with 25,664 votes (21.61%), Democrat Les Gara in third with 25,616 (21.57%) and Republican Charlie Pierce in fourth place with 8,529 votes (7.18%).

A total of 120,653 ballots have been counted so far, representing 20.15% of registered voters.

Full election night results and additional coverage will be featured Wednesday at juneauempire.com.

Update: 10:25 p.m.

A third round of ballots showing 224 of 402 precincts reporting (55.72%) shows independent Bill Walker has surpassed Democrat Les Gara for second place in the governor’s primary race by a margin of 25,405 votes (21.58%) to 25,367 (21.55%), while incumbent Republican Mike Dunleavy maintains a dominant lead with 49,768 votes (42.28%). Republican Charlie Pierce still has a significant lead for the fourth and final spot with 8,467 votes (7.19%).

The U.S. House special election and U.S. Senate primary are essentially unchanged from the second round of results.

A total of 119,569 ballots have been counted so far, representing 19.97% of registered voters.

Update: 10:10 p.m.

With a second round of ballots released and 207 of 402 precincts (51.49%) reporting the results in all major races remain essentially the same in terms of who is leading and likely to advance from the primary to the general election. In the special U.S. House race, for example, Mary Peltola continues to lead with 37.67% over Sarah Palin at 33.21% and Nick Begich III at 29.12%. That’s a slight gain for Peltola and Begich, and a slight decline for Palin.

Palin’s margin over Begich is a surprise for pollster Ivan Moore, who told The Alaska Landmine he expected a close finish. His polling suggests Begich would win a ranked choice vote against Peltola, but Palin’s 65% negative approval rating would likely result in a head-to-head loss against Peltola.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski slightly expanded her lead over Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, with the count at 42.6% to 41.45%. In the governor’s race incumbent Mike Dunleavy retains a dominant lead at 42.35%, while Democrat Les Gara’s second-place standing over independent Bill Walker narrowing slightly at 21.71% to 21.43%.

Update: 9:45 p.m.

Democrat Mary Peltola shocked much of the global media by emerging as the election night leader over two well-known Republicans in Alaska’s special U.S. House race and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski surprised many Alaska political experts with an early lead over her Trump-backed challenger, according to initial results from the Division of Elections.

The U.S. House results are less of a shock for many Alaskans than Outsiders who are largely focused on Sarah Palin’s aspiring political comeback, since the state’s new ranked choice voting system means the results and ultimate winner may be completely different by the time the final count occurs Aug. 31.

In the initial release of ballots at 9:29 p.m., with 42.54% of precincts reporting, Peltola had 33,372 votes (37.24%) to Palin with 30,275 votes (33.78%) and Republican Nick Begich III with 25,969 (28.98%). More ballot results are expected to be posted during the night and at interim periods leading up to the final Aug. 31 count that will include all absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has a narrow early lead with 38,549 votes (42.13%) over fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka with 38,311 (41.87%) in a race much of the media saw as paralleling a same-day primary in Wyoming that saw Rep. Liz Cheney lose by a 2-1 margin to a Donald Trump-backed challenger. Media attention worldwide is focusing heavily on both states as indicators of the pro/anti-Trump battle within the Republican party, and the possible wider implications in November.

In perhaps another early shocker, Democrat Patricia Chesbro is far behind with 5,659 votes (6.19%) in the U.S. Senate race and Republican Buzz Kelly is in fourth with 2,121 votes (2.32%).

Alaska is doing a new “pick one,” open primary where the top four finishers advance to the November general election, so most Alaska political experts as well as the candidates acknowledge Murkowski is favored to win a fifth term when ranked choice voting is used in that balloting even if she loses to Tshibaka in the primary.

The oddness of the House race is magnified since the special election is to fill the remainder of the late Don Young’s term, with voters also casting ballots in the primary for the upcoming full term for Alaska’s lone House seat. Peltola, Palin and Nick Begich III (who polls have suggested may be the ultimate winner in both races) are roughly matching their special election percentages in early results to suggest they will advance to the general election, with Republican Tara Sweeney currently the fourth contender with about 3.2% of the primary vote.

Early numbers from the Division of Elections also show Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy dominating the primary in his reelection bid with 38,754 votes (42.58%) with Democrat Les Gara in second place with 19,765 votes (21.72%) and former Gov. Bill Walker who’s running as an independent third with 18,960 votes (20.83%). Competing for the fourth and final spot are Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce with 6,800 votes (7.47%) and Wasilla state Rep. Christopher Kurka with 3,800 votes (4.18%).

Voters are also selecting most seats in the Alaska State Legislature, but all candidates for Juneau’s three seats will advance to the general election since only one incumbent is facing a single challenger.

In the release announcing the first batch of unofficial tallies, Alaska Division of Elections stated that it was unknown if or when more results would be shared; however, new numbers were shared before 10 p.m.

Update: 8:05 p.m.

Polling places are now closed. The state Division of Elections says the first results may be posted as early as 8:45 p.m., but expect them closer to 9 p.m.

National media are keeping a split-screen watch on Alaska’s historic ranked choice vote and the primary election in Wyoming, where incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Liz Cheney was defeated by about a 2-1 margin by Donald Trump-backed challenger Harriet Hageman. A similarly close watch is being kept on how Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski fares against challenger Kelly Tshibaka, but with the state conducting a new primary where the top four finishers advance to the general election the ultimate outcome of that race in November is expected to be markedly different even if Murkowski finishes well behind Tshibaka tonight.

The other key question of the evening is which four candidates will advance in the U.S. House and governor’s races, with the fourth-place finisher being most in doubt. In the governor’s race, for example, Wasilla state Rep. Christopher Kurka and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce are seen as contending for the last spot, and pundits are split this evening on who will prevail.

“I would probably bet it’s Pierce,” pollster Ivan Moore told The Alaska Landmine, which is livestreaming coverage of the evening.

Update: 6:30 p.m.

Voting continued at its day-long steady pace at the State of Alaska Library, Archives and Museum polling site, with the new ranked choice ballots for the special U.S. House race being the cause of occasional voter confusion and discontent.

“I didn’t like it,” said David Grove, a Juneau resident for 25 years. “It seems clearer to vote, and if you need a runoff election then have it.”

Grove added: “It just doesn’t feel right. I think you could game it, some political parties could game it if they wanted to.”

His wife, Sarah McNair-Grove, agreed and said she’s also not a fan of the “pick one” nonpartisan primary where the top four finishers advance to November’s general election, which is also happening in Alaska for the first time this year.

“I don’t really prefer it because the primaries are supposed to be to pick who the party supports,” she said.

There was little grumbling heard by election workers at the site — and also no reports of people illegally wearing campaign-related items or attempting any campaigning within 200 feet of the building.

Supporters of candidates from various parties in the races for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governor and Alaska State Legislature waves signs during rush hour in the rain at the intersection of Egan Drive and 10th St. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Supporters of candidates from various parties in the races for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governor and Alaska State Legislature waves signs during rush hour in the rain at the intersection of Egan Drive and 10th St. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“I’ve got my 200 feet of string just in case,” said Brock Tabor, a precinct co-chair.

There also were no issues raised by voters while inserting their paper ballots into a Dominion counting machine, although there were regular instances where ranked choice voting caused the machine to pause.

“You picked the same candidate all the way across,” Tabor told one voter. “If you do that it will only count the first-choice vote. If you’re good with that hit ’OK’ and it will proceed.”

Activity outside polling stations was busy as well during rush hour despite steady rain, with scores of sign wavers at busy intersections. Most were for candidates in the congressional and governor’s races, although Democratic Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl’s signs were also evident despite the fact he is running unopposed in the general election.

Update: 12:30 p.m.

Voting at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall at midday continued at the brisk pace seen since the polls opened at 7 a.m., said Emily Kane, precinct chair at the polling site and a local election official since 2016.

“I think people are concerned about our democracy,” she said. “I think people are excited about ranked choice voting because it’s a national thing.”

But with the increased interest there’s been increased confusion, Kane said.

“There’s been more spoiled ballots than usual,” she said. “People are excited and think we’re doing ranked choice voting (for all of the races).”

The new voting process and combined primary and special election wasn’t confusing for Carl Petersen, who said he’s been voting in Alaska since 2008.

“It looked pretty straightforward for me, but we’ve been seeing lots of ads for ranked choice voting on Hulu,” he said. “The state is obviously spending a lot of money on that.”

Petersen said his level of interest in the candidates and issues this year is strong, but it’s not as interesting as the 2012 election where, among other things, he encountered protesters while voting in Fairbanks.

“Definitely for the special election I’m paying attention to the politicians I’ve seen before,” he said, adding it’s because of his unfamiliarity with new candidates.

There were no long waits at the polling site at midday despite the steady stream of voters. Samatha Jenkins, after casting her ballot, said her biggest frustration is “I find the constantly changing voting locations drives me nuts.”

She said voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic was “fantastic because it was a great way to get things in on time,” but opted against casting an absentee ballot by mail in this primary because it required requesting one from the state Division of Elections rather than having them automatically sent to all voters.

Initial report: 11 a.m.

An unprecedented Election Day proceeded as business as usual at voting precincts in Juneau.

Tuesday’s ballots included the debut of ranked choice voting in a special general election to fill the months remaining in the late Don Young’s congressional term as well as regular pick-one primaries for U.S. Senate, governor, state Legislature seats and a full term in the U.S. House. Under the same voter-approved elections system that introduced ranked choice voting, the primaries were nonpartisan, and the top four voter-getters will advance to November’s general election.

“We’re having a great day,” said Kady Levale, the precinct chair at the Mendenhall Mall. “There’s not too many questions that we haven’t been able to answer.”

Levale said the day had “been going great” during the morning hours, and said the Mendenhall Mall station has seen a steady flow of people coming in every 15 minutes or so since opening at 7 a.m. and expects the rest of the day to continue similarly.

[What to know for Election Day]

She said not too many voters have been confused about the ranked choice voting system which is a new feature to this year’s ballot. But, Levale said if voters did have questions or concerns, all officials were on standby with handouts, along with each booth being equipped with helpful information hanging up as well.

Auke Bay Ferry Terminal had seen a consistent line of voters come in to cast their ballots from the time the doors opened at 7 a.m., according to precinct chair Karen Rehfeld.

“We’ve had a pretty steady flow this morning, usually it’s a little bit busier right at first, the polls opened at 7 a.m. but it’s been pretty even since we’ve opened so far. Our busiest hours around here are typically first thing in the morning two or three hours around the lunch hour and then in the evening as people start getting off of work; we’re open until 8 p.m.” Rehfeld said.

This is Rehfeld’s third year as the precinct chair at Auke Bay Ferry Terminal and aside from this being the first year of ranked choice voting, Rehfeld said there haven’t been any differences or surprises compared to years past.

“So far we don’t seem to be having any issues, it’s the first year with the new approach, so we don’t have two separate ballots for the primary like we used to have, so there are some differences but voters seem to understand the changes and seem to be voting just fine,” Rehfeld said.

Precinct chair Grace Lee at the North Douglas Fire Station echoed Rehfeld’s comments.

“Things are going well so far, really smoothly. We have people continually coming in and if we do have a pause it’s only for a couple of minutes. We haven’t had a lot of questions or confusion, people are just coming in consistently,” Lee said.

Contact reporter Clarise Larson at Clarise.Larson@juneauempire.com. Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at Jonson.Kuhn@juneauempire.com.

Hanna Stickel, a precinct co-chair at the State Of Alaska Library Archives Museum polling site, helps a voter insert a ballot into a Dominion counting machine Tuesday evening. Election workers said there were no complaints from voters about the machines that some election integrity skeptics have questioned. But the state’s new ranked choice voting meant the machine did pause processing numerous ballots because people ranked the same candidate as their preference in every box. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alaska resident casting her vote at Auke Bay Ferry Terminal among a steady flow of voters in Tuesday morning’s primary election.

Alaska resident casting her vote at Auke Bay Ferry Terminal among a steady flow of voters in Tuesday morning’s primary election.

Emily Kane, precinct chair at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall polling station, instructs a voter on filling out the ballot for Tuesday’s combined special and primary election. Kane, a local election worker since 2016, said there is a high rate of spoiled ballots this year due to confusion about the new ranked choice voting system. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Emily Kane, precinct chair at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall polling station, instructs a voter on filling out the ballot for Tuesday’s combined special and primary election. Kane, a local election worker since 2016, said there is a high rate of spoiled ballots this year due to confusion about the new ranked choice voting system. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A resident walks to the Mendenhall Mall precinct to cast their vote for this year’s atypical election day. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A resident walks to the Mendenhall Mall precinct to cast their vote for this year’s atypical election day. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Election official sit by the polling booths at the Mendenhall Mall precinct to help voters with any questions or confusion for this year’s elections for Alaska’s open U.S. House seat and a pick-one primary for U.S. Senate. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Election official sit by the polling booths at the Mendenhall Mall precinct to help voters with any questions or confusion for this year’s elections for Alaska’s open U.S. House seat and a pick-one primary for U.S. Senate. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
A family walks out of the Mendenhall Valley Public Library after casting their ballots on this year’s Election Day for the special general election and a regular primary election.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire A family walks out of the Mendenhall Valley Public Library after casting their ballots on this year’s Election Day for the special general election and a regular primary election.

Juneau Fire Station at 820 Glacier Avenue welcomes surrounding north Douglas neighborhoods to vast votes Tuesday morning for Alaska’s primary election. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Fire Station at 820 Glacier Avenue welcomes surrounding north Douglas neighborhoods to vast votes Tuesday morning for Alaska’s primary election. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Auke Bay Ferry Terminal along with all other poll stations opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

Auke Bay Ferry Terminal along with all other poll stations opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)

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