Updated at 7:30 p.m. with final vote totals, candidate reactions and analysis. Additional coverage during the coming days will be published in the Juneau Empire’s Saturday edition and at juneauempire.com.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola and Gov. Mike Dunleavy were declared the winners of Alaska’s first general election to use ranked choice voting which, despite receiving widespread attention nationally, saw the lowest voter turnout recorded in state history.
The process, taking place under live media scrutiny at the Alaska Division of Elections office stating at 4 p.m. Wednesday, captivated attention due to heightened partisan divides and extreme accusations about election integrity nationwide. But only a few observers and media members showed up in person to watch the count in the office of elections Director Gail Fenumiai, who teared up as she thanked elections workers before explaining the ranking process and announcing the results.
The ranked choice tally for a total of about 20 races took about 30 minutes to complete, with each round of each race calculated instantly and briefly explained by Fenumiai.
It appears the new system did not affect who won Alaska’s statewide races, but the impact may have been more significant in the Alaska State Legislature — including one race headed for a near-certain recount that was decided by four votes.
Dunleavy, a Republican, won a narrow majority of first-choice votes to avoid an instant ranked choice runoff as Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker split about 45% of the vote, according to the final tally of first-choice ballots.
Murkowski prevailed over fellow Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka by 53.7% to 46.3% following two ranked choice rounds in the first instant runoff. Peltola, a Democrat, prevailed over Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin 54.9% to 45.1% in the final round of ranked choice voting.
Murkowski kept her lead through the ranked choice process after the first-vote tally put her ahead of Tshibaka by 43.32% to 42.68%. Tshibaka narrowed the gap by getting about 38% of Republican Buzz Kelley’s second-choice votes, compared to Murkowski getting 19%, Democrat Pat Chesbro 10% and 33% of her supporters not ranking a second candidate. The incumbent got a majority by receiving 71% of Chesbro’s second choice ballots, while Tshibaka got 8% and 21% made no second choice.
Palin did fare better in the ranked choice rounds than during the special election, when she and fellow Republican Nick Begich III attacked each other constantly, as both Republicans urged supporters to “rank the red” during the subsequent fall campaign. Palin was the second choice of 67% of Begich’s supporters (compared to 50% during the special election), while Peltola got 12% (compared to 29% earlier) and the remaining 21% made no second choice (matching the special election total). But Peltola easily prevailed due to her first-choice tally of nearly 49% far exceeding the 40% she got in the special election.
In the state legislative races, there was one Senate and three House races seen as key to determining the leadership of each chamber during the next session.
In the closest of the House races Democrat Denny Wells lost by four votes to incumbent Republican Tom McKay in his Anchorage district, by a count of 3,472 (50.03%) for McKay to 3,468 (49.97%) to Wells. Wells had a 46.64% to 39.14% lead in first-choice votes, but McKay got 62% of the second-choice votes from supporters of Republican David Elbeck, with McKay getting 9% and 29% left blank.
Another legislative race where the winner in first-choice ballots was displaced by ranked choice results was State House District 11, where independent Walter Featherly outpolled Republican Julie Coulombe 45.42% to 39.13%. But a solid majority of of the 15.44% of voters picking third-place finisher Republican Ross Bieling first ranked Coulombe second and most of the rest made no second choice, giving her a 50.76% to 49.24% win over Featherly.
The Republican wins mean the 40-member House currently has 21 Republicans, which may allow them to form a majority coalition instead of a bipartisan arrangement, although political observers immediately after the election tally stated another stalemate at the onset of the session may result if a coalition including the most conservative House members isn’t workable.
The Senate appears likely to form a bipartisan coalition, after years of Republican rule, after moderate Republican and former Senate President Cathy Giessel ultimately prevailed in her Anchorage district over conservative incumbent Roger Holland 56.98% to 43.02%. While Republicans won 11 of the 20 seats in the Senate, four of them were rejected by their local party leadership in favor of more conservative candidates.
One undetermined question is if ranked choice voting played a significant role in the lowest turnout since records are available in 1976. There were 264,994 ballots counted representing 44.03% of registered voters, according to the preliminary first-vote tally, putting it well behind the next lowest total of 49.84% in 2018. It would take about 35,000 additional votes to equal the 2018 turnout.
The biggest drop in turnout compared to 2018 appears to be in remote portions of northern and western Alaska.
Robin O’Donoghue, policy and communications manager for the Alaska Public Interest Research Group — and one of the few in-person observers — said he doesn’t think ranked choice voting is to blame for the low turnout.
“I would really say people are discouraged with government in general right now,” he said, adding “it’s the first election we’ve had with it. but it passed by fair margin (among voters in 2020) so I don’t think it’s a factor.”
Among those stating ranked choice may have been a factor was former state attorney general and Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, observing the tally in-person as a representative of Alaskans for Better Elections, which describes itself as a nonpartisan education and research group.
“Early on there was confusion about how ranked choice voting worked,” he said. “There was a lot of noise in certain circles about ranked choice voting and I think that may have had some impact on people’s willingness to turn out.”
But Botelho said ultimately the most significant outcome of the process was allowing more residents to be involved as legitimate candidates in races, and polling by his organization shows more than 90% of respondents said they found ranked choice voting simple.
“The result of ranked choice voting is it made it more competitive,” he said.
Another possible factor is redistricting, which has faced challenges for the past two years on the basis on unconstitutional political gerrymandering, which could lower competition and thus perhaps voter incentive in some state House districts.
Candidates anticipating wins and losses were in spin mode well ahead of the ranked choice tally, and winners were quick to issue statements afterward.
“Thank you, Alaska. I am honored that Alaskans – of all regions, backgrounds and party affiliations – have once again granted me their confidence to continue working with them and on their behalf in the U.S. Senate,” Murkowski said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to continuing the important work ahead of us.”
Peltola, who was advertising before the final count for legislative interns (while Palin had hired an acting chief of staff despite her likely second-place finish), thanked supporters in a press release Wednesday evening.
“I am honored to have earned the trust of Alaska voters,” Peltola said. “Whether you voted for me or not, I want you to know I’m going to continue serving all of Alaska and all Alaskans. This campaign has never been about partisan politics. It has been about Alaska’s future.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued its congratulations immediately after the ranked choice results for the race were announced.
“Once again, Congresswoman Mary Peltola has made history and sailed to re-election to represent Alaska at-large,” the DCCC states. “The great residents of Alaska are eager for more of Congresswoman Peltola’s proven leadership on the issues that matter most – from fish, to family to freedom. I offer a warm congratulations on her second victory this year. Alaskans deserve Congresswoman Peltola’s continued representation in Washington.”
Dunleavy, in his victory statement on his Twitter account, wrote “Alaskans, thank you for voting and for your continued support over the past four years. From public safety and improving our education outcomes to growing our economy, I am honored to serve Alaskans for another four years.”
Denouncing the process (again) was Tshibaka, who on Monday appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast for the second time since the election to cast doubts on the process where the host claimed “the Murkowski machine can steal this from the folks in Alaska.” Tshibaka reiterated claims Murkowski, who was censured the year by the state Republican party for supporting the impeachment of former President Donald Trump, “is trying to run away with this election” and solicited donations in anticipation of possible lawsuits or challenges to the results.
Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, a Republican and the state’s top elections official, has said he feels confident in the state’s election process.
Tshibaka, after the final results were announced, issued a press release conceding “it’s clear from the ranked-choice tabulations that Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been reelected and I congratulate her on that.” But the challenger also reiterated her attacks on the process and what she called undue influence by outside political entities.
A more accepting response was offered by Les Gara, a Democratic candidate for governor who has acknowledged he is unlikely to rally from his distant second place behind Dunleavy during the ranked choice process.
”Today more than half of all candidates won’t prevail in their elections,” he wrote in a Twitter message Wednesday. “It’s an easy obligation in a democracy to accept the result with dignity, and not damage democracy by blaming a loss on non-existent election fraud, or a vote counting system that works.”
The results won’t be final until they are certified by the State Review Board, which is scheduled for Nov. 29. Afterward candidates can request a recount for up to five days or challenge the results. The board is set to certify the results on Nov. 29. Even then, candidates can request a recount for up to five days or contest the results for up to 10 days after certification.
The following are the results as of the most recent official count for the three statewide races, plus the four most-watched state legislative races where ranked choice tallies are determining the winner and likely the makeup of the leadership coalitions for each chamber. For races where ranked-choice votes have not yet been tallied, the second- and third-round listings are presumptive based on first-choice ballot counts. Incumbents are noted with an asterisk. Declared winners are in bold italics.
First-choice: Lisa Murkowski* (R) 43.32%, Kelly Tshibaka (R) 42.68%, Pat Chesbro (D) 10.35%, Buzz Kelley (R) 2.88%
Second-choice: Murkowski* (R) 44.46%, Tshibaka (R) 44.43%, Chesbro (D) 11.2%
Third-choice: Murkowski* (R) 53.69%, Tshibaka (R) 46.31%
First-choice: Mary Peltola* (D) 48.68%, Sarah Palin (R) 25.79%, Nick Begich III (R) 23.38%, Chris Bye (L) 1.73%
Second-choice: Peltola* (D) 49.2%, Palin (R) 26.32%, Begich (R) 24.48%
Third-choice: Peltola* (D) 54.9%, Palin (R) 45.1%
First-choice: Mike Dunleavy* (R) 50.34% , Les Gara (D) 24.17%, Bill Walker (I) 20.72%, Charlie Pierce (R) 4.48%
State Senate District E
First-choice: Cathy Giessel (R) 33.84%, Roger Holland* (R) 33.12%, Roselynn Cacy (D) 33.04%
Second-choice: Giessel (R) 56.98%, Holland* (R) 43.02%
State House District 11
First-choice: Walter Featherly (I) 45.42% (D), Julie Coulombe (R) 39.13%, Ross Bieling (R) 15.44%
Second-choice: Coulombe (R) 50.76%, Featherly 49.24% (D)
State House District 15
First-choice: Denny Wells (D) 46.61%, Tom McKay* (R-Inc) 38.82%, David Eibeck (R) 14.08%
Second-choice: McKay* (R) 50.03%, Wells (D) 49.97%
State House District 28
First-choice: Jesse Sumner (R) 37.39%, Steve Menard (R) 26.48%, Rachel Allen (R) 21.6%, Jessica Wright (R) 14.53%
Second-choice: Sumner (R) 43.04%, Menard (R) 30.54%, Allen (R) 26.43%
Third-choice: Sumner (R) 61.82%, Menard (R) 38.18%
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