A dry-erase board at the Alaska Division of Elections headquarters in Juneau shows Ambler precinct's five absentee votes missing from the final tally.

A dry-erase board at the Alaska Division of Elections headquarters in Juneau shows Ambler precinct's five absentee votes missing from the final tally.

State certifies primary election results, but recount is imminent

Editor’s note: This article has been updated due to a correction. The article reported that absentee votes from the village of Ambler were not received by Division of Elections officials in Juneau in time to be counted Tuesday. The Division of Elections said Wednesday it had not received the absentee votes at all. Additionally, the Ambler Precinct Chair reported having five questioned ballots, of which four were by young residents not registered to vote. 

The official results are in: Dean Westlake has defeated incumbent Rep. Benjamin Nageak by four votes, 819-815.

The official word isn’t likely to be the last word, however.

“I can safely say they will ask for a recount,” said Maridon Boario, a staffer for Nageak, by phone on Tuesday afternoon.

Five ballots from Nageak’s House District 40, which covers the North Slope, remain uncounted. The ballots, absentee votes from the village of Ambler, were not received on time by local officials Tuesday. Four of the five ballots, however, were from youth not registered to vote and therefore would not be counted.

Why not just wait for them to arrive?

“We did ‘just wait,’” said Josie Bahnke, head of the Division of Elections.

Alaska statute 15.15.440 declares that “A(n) (election) certificate not actually delivered to the director by the close of business on the 15th day after the election may not be counted at the state ballot counting review.”

That would have made the deadline Thursday evening, but Bahnke waited through Friday and Tuesday as a precaution. In that time, more than a dozen absentee ballots arrived (and were counted) from District 40’s Browerville precinct, allowing Nageak to close the gap to just four votes.

In addition to the tardy Ambler ballots, the state still has not received absentee ballots from rural portions of the Kodiak archipelago, St. George Island, or Arctic Village.

Alaska statute 15.15.440 gives the director of elections the ability to use his or her judgment to call the election, and Bahnke made that decision Tuesday.

“We waited beyond the time we needed to, and I think due to the closeness of the primary, we had hoped to receive them today, but at some point, we had to draw the line,” Bahnke said. “I’m sure I’ll get criticized for my judgment on it, but we decided to wait after that (Labor Day) holiday weekend and we would reconvene.”

Factoring into Bahnke’s decision is the fact that Ambler, close to challenger Dean Westlake’s home town, voted heavily for Nageak’s opponent on Election Day. Of the 36 known votes cast there, 33 have gone to Westlake. 

Nageak — or 10 registered voters in House District 40 — must send a letter to the Division of Elections to request the recount. Because the race is within 20 votes or 0.5 percent of the total ballots in the district, the state will pay for the recount.

Bahnke said the division is prepared to conduct the recount within a day if requested.

“I can’t predict that they’re going to request it (but) I’m expecting them to,” she said.

Even though it’s just a primary election, the Nageak-Westlake contest matters because the winner will face no competition in the general election. Whoever wins here will join the Legislature in January.

Nageak is a conservative Democrat who serves as a member of the Republican-led House Majority. In the primary, the Alaska Democratic Party and many traditional Democrats threw their weight behind his challenger. In November, Democrats hope to earn enough support in the House to force a restructuring of the majority, and replacing Nageak would be one step of that process. Republicans, meanwhile, have thrown their support behind Nageak in hopes of preserving their majority.

In a statement Thursday, GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock called the House District 40 election “illegal.”

“Not only in Shungnak, but in the Barrow precincts as well, the process was so flawed that no one knows how the people really voted,” he said.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, right, answer questions during a Native Issues Forum. Finalized election results show that Nageak lost his seat to challenger Dean Westlake by four votes.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, right, answer questions during a Native Issues Forum. Finalized election results show that Nageak lost his seat to challenger Dean Westlake by four votes.

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