Gail Fenumiai got her own balloon drop to celebrate the culmination of a triumphant campaign season, even though she’s been presiding over Alaska’s elections rather than being a candidate in them for two decades.
Fenumiai last day as director of the Alaska’s Division of Elections was Friday, and she arrived to find the floor of her office strewn with balloons and the walls covered with other celebratory decor. Her departure came the same week the division conducted two recounts in one of the state’s most scrutinized election cycles ever as the nation’s attention was often focused on the outcome of the new ranked choice voting — and on her as she conducted the final tallies during live broadcasts.
While there were comments by some people, including just-departed Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, about frustrations from the fringe element questioning the integrity of election workers and the process, Fenumiai said in an interview Friday afternoon she decided in September it was simply time after a long career.
“My husband has been retired for six years,” she said. “I just turned 60 this year and you just never know how much time you have left.”
Fenumiai said she and her husband plan to remain in Juneau, albeit with more time for travel and “projects around the house you don’t have time for on weekends.” Just-sworn Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom will appoint Fenumiai’s replacement.
Fenumiai was appointed elections director by Meyer in 2019, and previously served as director between 2008 and 2015 during her time with the division. She’s also worked for a dozen years elsewhere for the state, beginning with the Department of Transportation in high school and in the lieutenant governor’s office where she began her work with the elections division, as well as occupations including being the regional coordinator at Catholic Community Service in Juneau until her most recent appointment as elections director.
“You either have a passion for the process and what the division’s purpose is, or you don’t,” she said when asked what kept her at the division for two decades. “And it has a lot to do with the people you work with…people have no idea how hard-working the staff is and what it takes to pull off an election.”
In addition to the first-time ranked choice process, national attention was on this year’s elections due to former President Donald Trump who visited Anchorage during the summer and posted numerous social media messages invoking ranked choice as part of his ongoing baseless claims about election fraud. Election officials in Alaska said they didn’t experience the sometimes violent disruptions by skeptics other states saw, but Meyer earlier this week suggested such people might affect the division’s ability to retain workers.
“It was a challenge at times to educate and convince people that maybe the information that they got from the MyPillow Guy isn’t necessarily accurate and you should trust your election folks who actually work here on the frontlines,” Meyer told the Anchorage Daily News on Tuesday, referring to Mike Lindell, who during a Trump rally in Anchorage this summer falsely claimed 20,000 votes were stolen from the former president during the 2020 election and ranked choice voting would mean similar thievery.
“So we are losing a lot of knowledge and talent out of our elections department. That concerns me and I’ve talked to Nancy (Dahlstrom) about it. The pros are that now Nancy can bring in her own team to run elections but I think the con is that she also loses some valuable experience.”
Fenumiai said while the nonsense is a nuisance, it’s not why she’s retiring.
“I have pretty thick skin,” she said. “We all know the truth here. It’s tiresome to hear that over and over, but it was never a factor in my decision.”
The hectic pace and numerous late nights at the office counting (and recounting) ballots did involve far more major party candidates than previous election cycles, since in addition to the special election ranked choice voting meant 59 of the 60 Alaska State Legislature seats were up for grabs and up to four candidates could appear on the general ballot after the open primaries. Plus the division unexpectedly had to conduct two full primary/general elections rather than one when U.S. Rep. Don Young died in March.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to come up for air,” Fenumiai said. “With the death of Congressman Young that started the year for us with the special election and there wasn’t a lot of time to do that.”
But she said it’s not necessarily the most unusual or memorable election cycle she remembers from her career. Her first thought is the 2010 election where U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski won a historic write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary.
“That was a very unique thing, something that had never happened before,” Fenumiai said. Her involvement went far beyond supervising and delegating since “I was in there looking at every single ballot that was questioned.”
Also memorable was the 2020 election when the COVID-19 pandemic was first peaking, and there were far more uncertainties and no vaccines, Fenumiai said.
“We were trying to conduct an in-person election during a pandemic,” she said, noting that also meant dealing with record numbers of voters casting ballots by mail. “I’m very proud of the division for that. Those are big things for a division that only has 31 people statewide.”
It’s unknown when a new director will be appointed or who might be in contention, but Fenumiai’s advice beyond what’s in the official training manuals is largely to embrace the wisdom of co-workers and the challenge of a job that’s often anything but routine.
“Listen, be open-minded, trust your staff and don’t think you know everything because every day you learn something new,” she said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org