Voting booths at Old St. Joe's in Nome

Elections 2020: Don’t expect election results immediately

With a pandemic raging through the nation, the United States general election will look different in 2020. Typically, by Tuesday night, winners have been declared and Alaskans know who their representatives in Juneau or Washington D.C. are. But this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of voters in both the U.S. and Alaska chose to vote early, either by mail or in person.

On the morning of election day, Senate President Cathy Giessel and Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich released a letter urging Alaskans to remain calm and “hold confidence in both our election process and that all votes will be counted.” The bipartisan letter asks Alaskans to be patient in the face of delayed results. Giessel and Begich explain that they have trust in the way the state conducts elections, and that Alaskans should too. “We are confident that all Alaskans who have cast a ballot through Election Day will have an opportunity to have that ballot counted,” the letter reads. “We trust this election process and hope that you will join us in this confidence.”

Giessel and Begich also urge people to be civil in this highly tense and stressful time. “It is important in this election—and in any election—to understand that what binds us together as a community, a state, and a nation, is how we conduct ourselves with each other. Whether you are an Independent, Republican, Democrat or a member of another political party, when the election is over, we are all Alaskans and Americans.” Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the election outcome or with the neighbor, Giessel and Begich remind Alaskans to be courteous and respectful toward each other. “We encourage all Alaskan candidates and their supporters, if you win, to win with grace; if you lose, to lose with dignity.”

In Alaska, absentee ballots are not opened until a week after the election, so the significant proportion of absentee voters means that election results —particularly for state congressional and legislative races— will be less immediate.

The delay is due to the fact that, in order to avoid crowds at the polls on November 3, many Alaskans took advantage of early voting options. As of the day before the election, 152,585 Alaskans have already voted. This number equals nearly 30 percent of the turnout from the 2016 presidential election and over a quarter of all registered voters in the state. While many of these ballots will be tallied on November 3, not all of them will be. Among those which will not be counted immediately are absentee by-mail ballots, which were by far the most popular early voting method.

According to Alaska Division of Elections Spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor, early voting ballots cast prior to October 29 will be counted on election night, while early ballots cast after this date will be tallied seven days after the election.

As is typical, ballots cast in person on election day will be counted as soon as the polls close at 8 p.m., and unofficial results will be reported throughout the night.

The bulk of early voting in Alaska was done by mail. As of Monday, a record 119,310 Alaskans requested absentee by mail ballots and 86,066 have been returned. For comparison, during the 2016 general election, 31,499 mail in ballots were requested, with 27,446 returned. As a security measure, the division of elections does not begin counting absentee by-mail or absentee in-person ballots until a week after the election. Moreover, as long as they are postmarked on or before election day, absentee ballots can be counted if they are received up to 10 days after election day. In addition to the mandatory wait to open absentee ballots, Montemayor said that it may take longer than normal to review and count absentee ballots due to the sheer number. As absentee ballots are counted throughout the week, results will be updated.

Because so many Alaskans voted not in person, it is highly likely that race results will change over the course of the weeks following the election. This is particularly true of smaller races where it is not unheard of for a single vote to determine the outcome of the election. In Alaska and elsewhere, results will likely shift to the political left. That is, while more people in general voted absentee due to COVID-19, voters who cast ballots early or by mail are predominantly associated with the Democratic party.

In Alaska, 35 percent of registered Democrats registered to vote absentee, compared to 17 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Independents. About 20 percent of Alaskans who voted early in-person this year are registered with the Democratic party. Therefore, initial results may favor Republican candidates but could change later, as absentee ballots are accounted for. It is also likely that more absentee ballots will be valid; due to a court decision last month, absentee ballots no longer require a witness signature. Improper witnessing was the number one reason ballots were rejected during the August state primary election, with 1,240 ballots rejected.

 “It is important for voters to know that the counting process, including timelines, has not changed,” said Montemayor. She emphasized that normal deadlines are still in place. “Regardless of how many [ballots] we need to count, it must be done by November 18. We will work day, night and weekends if needed in order to make this happen.” This is because Alaska Statutes mandate that all eligible ballots must be counted within 15 days of the election. Once the ballots are counted, they are sent to Juneau to be certified by the State Review Board. According to Montemayor, the target date for election certification is November 25, or 22 days after the election.

Alaska is not the only state in which results will trickle in after election day. Of interest on the national scene are swing states such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, both of which allow ballots to be received after election day as long as they were postmarked on or before November 3. In the days leading up to the election, President Donald Trump several times stated that a winner should be declared on November 3, based on the count available that night. Threatening legal action, Trump suggested that courts should prevent states from counting ballots after election day. While the president made it seem as though results are always final on election night, in reality this is not the case. Votes are always counted after election day and presidential races have even taken weeks to call in some states.

While many voters are choosing to avoid the polls out of concern for the safety of themselves and others, in some communities voting in person may be impossible. Some small Alaskans communities are taking strict COVID-19 precautions, including banning public gatherings such as would happen in polling places. After a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the village of Stebbins is currently in lockdown, but in person elections were planned there. Region IV Elections Supervisor Angelique Horton said that she and Lieutenant Governor Kevin Meyer have been working with the mayor of Stebbins to discuss options for conducting the election. They ultimately decided that Stebbins, which has 341 registered voters, will have a polling place for in-person voting. Residents who are in quarantine have the option to vote a special needs ballot. A special needs ballot, Horton explained, is when an appointed representative delivers a ballot to each voter who requests one.

While the village has been COVID-19 free after an outbreak earlier this fall, voting in Diomede is also a challenge due to its remote location. Mail arrives and leaves Diomede only once a week by a helicopter each Wednesday. However, Horton said that conducting elections in Diomede, which has 50 registered voters, is much like any other precinct. Voting supplies such as ballots and pens (and this year, hand sanitizer and wipes), are sent well in advance of the election. According to Horton, materials are sent out to villages three weeks prior to election day, and the division of elections contacts every precinct about 10 days before the election to make sure that everything has arrived. Poll workers in Diomede count the ballots and call in the results on election night and materials are returned on the next flight out.

 

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