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.

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.

Unpredecented election draws strong interest, some confusion

Juneau voters turn out steadily as world watches ranked choice vote, famous candidates

This article has been updated to correct a paraphrased quote in a photo caption. Emily Kane said there had been an increase in spoiled ballots, but did not attribute the increase directly to ranked choice voting. Kane cited several factors, including many first-time voters, that may have led to the increase.

An unprecedented Election Day in Alaska that’s getting global media attention saw heavy turnout and some confusion among people voting in both the regular primary election and a special election to fill the remaining months of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s U.S. House term.

A steady stream of voters arrived at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall beginning when polls opened at 7 a.m. and, while no long waits in lines were reported as of early afternoon, the rapid pace was expected to continue until polls closed at 8 p.m.

“I think people are concerned about our democracy,” said Emily Kane, precinct chair at the polling site and a local election official since 2016. “I think people are excited about ranked choice voting because it’s a national thing.”

[What to know for Election Day]

Tuesday’s ballots included the debut of ranked choice voting in a special general election 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.

Kane said there’s been some voter confusion along with the increased interest.

“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).”

Officials at some other Juneau polling stations said there seemed to be minimal confusion.

“There’s not too many questions that we haven’t been able to answer,” Kady Levale, the precinct chair at the Mendenhall Mall, said mid-morning.

Levale said the mall station saw a steady flow of people coming in every 15 minutes or so since opening and expected the rest of the day to continue similarly. All election officials were on standby with handouts for voters with questions or concerns, along with each booth being equipped with helpful information hanging on the temporary walls.

Carl Petersen, who said he’s been voting in Alaska since 2008, said after casting his ballot at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall he didn’t have any problems.

“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.”

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 hadn’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.

The first results were expected to be published by the Alaska Division of Elections at 9 p.m. and will be available along with updated coverage online at juneauempire.com. But it will likely take up to two weeks before meaningful results of the most contest races are known since elections officials will continue processing absentee ballots until Aug. 31 and are tentatively scheduled to certify the results on Sept. 2.

That’s likely to be a factor in the special election in particular, which pits Democrat Mary Peltola against Republican hopefuls Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin. Peltola, for instance, may well cause the global media that’s mostly focusing on Palin to write “shocker” headlines by emerging with the most votes on election night — and keeping that lead among first-choice votes until the Aug. 31 deadline. But unless Peltola’s total exceeds 50% one of the Republican candidates may wind up as the winner as second- and third-choice votes are added to each candidates’ totals on that date.

The other major development during the evening and when the votes are certified is who the final four candidates will be in the congressional and gubernatorial races. Three candidates topping polls in each race are seen as virtually certain to advance, so the primary question is who the fourth in each will be.

Peltola, Palin and Begich all are expected to again face off in the general election, for example. A likely fourth candidate is Republican Tara Sweeney, who finished fifth in the Juneau primary for the special election, but improved her prospects when independent Al Gross surprisingly dropped out after finishing third.

In the U.S. Senate race incumbent Lisa Murkowski is expected to finish second by a significant margin behind fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who’s backed by former President Donald Trump. That dynamic, along with observing the level of success in Palin’s attempted political comeback, is largely what is attracting international media coverage in what is billed as a battle between competing elements of the Republican Party.

Democrat Patricia Chesbro is expected to finish a solid third to advance in the U.S. Senate primary, with pundits as of Election Day declaring the fourth spot essentially up for grabs among the 16 remaining candidates.

The governor’s race is expected to be dominated by Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, with Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker splitting most of the remaining votes. The fourth spot is seen as going to either Wasilla state Rep. Christopher Kurka or Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, both Republicans who are campaigning on being more conservative than Dunleavy.

Petersen said his level of interest as a voter 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 Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall 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.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com. Contact reporter Clarise Larson at Clarise.Larson@juneauempire.com. Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at Jonson.Kuhn@juneauempire.com.

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)

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. (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)

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

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.

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