A week past Election Day, ballot counting is winding down in most states.
But in Alaska, it’s just begun.
After tallying up in-person votes, largely from cities, on Nov 3, the state began processing ballots from rural areas a week later, on Nov. 10. The next day, the Associated Press called the state’s much-watched Senate race for incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who led with close to 150,000 votes to 97,600 for challenger Al Gross.
But with around 70,000 ballots remaining to be counted, Gross — an Independent running on the Democratic line who advocates climate action, including the United States rejoining the Paris climate pact — has yet to concede the race. He will need to win 75% of those remaining votes to overtake and beat Sullivan.
This story is part of DRILLED Local’s 2020 election coverage.
The state will accept mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day until Nov. 13, and ballots coming from overseas until Nov. 18.
During his campaign, Gross made addressing Alaska’s environmental problems and climate change marquee issues at debates and in radio and TV ads. On his website, Gross notes that climate change is affecting myriad Alaska industries, and promises to “move Alaska forward into sustainable, 21st century economic and energy growth,” including shifting the state away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal.
But with nearly a quarter of Alaska’s jobs and roughly half of the economy linked to oil, voters tend to lean away from criticisms of the industry in elections for federal and statewide offices.
Sullivan, who has a history of climate change denial, supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has termed climate-change-related erosion of coastal lands, as well as over-acidification of marine waters key to Alaska’s roughly $5.4 billion commercial seafood industry, as “opportunities in the Arctic.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Sullivan has reported $368,404 in oil-and-gas-linked campaign contributions in the 2020 election cycle.
Election season polling suggested that the race was competitive, and led to one of the most expensive races for Alaska statewide office in history, according to the Anchorage Daily News, with “the campaigns combined spending almost $21 million as of Oct. 14, and outside groups spending about $27 million.”
But the national press so far isn’t buying into the Gross campaign’s hopes of flipping the vote. The two Georgia runoffs in January are near-universally deemed most likely to determine control of the Senate, and with it the potential for the incoming Biden-Harris administration to achieve its policy ambitions.
The fact that Alaska’s vote counts won’t be fully settled until about two weeks after Election Day isn’t necessarily due to the coronavirus. It’s long been the norm for the vast, sparsely populated state.
It takes time to round up ballots from the myriad villages speckled throughout the state, 82% without road access. Bush plane pilots need to be dispatched to retrieve the ballots from these small communities, a job made more challenging by unpredictable and sometimes dangerous winter weather. These more rural communities, which make up a third of the population, make up the bulk of the remaining ballots to be counted.
Angelique Horton, Election Supervisor for the Nome – Region IV Elections Office, which consists of Northern, Western, and Southwest Alaska, as well as the Aleutian Island chain, says virtually all of her region votes by mail.
“I have 106 communities that are bush communities that have to do everything through the mail,” Horton says. “I ship them supplies and equipment and then it comes back through the postal service. That takes time.”
Another drag on the process is that before these ballots can be counted, the state must first log all voters who took advantage of same-day registration, and then cross-reference those names with absentee ballots to make sure no vote is counted twice.
As of Tuesday, some precincts had not yet turned in their in-person voting information.
“I don’t know what other states do, I can’t speak for them, but I know it is different in every state,” says Tiffany Montemayor, a spokesperson with the State of Alaska Division of Elections, regarding Alaska’s comparatively slower process.
Election officials are more concerned with making sure everyone’s voice is heard than with speeding up the count, Montemayor says. “Everyone’s vote matters, no matter where you live in the state or how you voted. It’s important that in order for us to give accurate, fair, and secure results we count all eligible votes.”
If Gross does achieve a come-from-behind victory, it won’t be the first time that absentee ballots changed the results of a Senate race. Alaska has a penchant for idiosyncratic voting, with nearly 60% of voters registered independent rather than with either major party.
On Election Day 2008, it appeared that Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens had kept his job, only to be ousted two weeks later by Democrat Mark Begich after all the absentee ballots were tabulated.
Alaska is also one of only two states where a write-in candidate has won a Senate seat. In 2010, Sen. Lisa Murkowski won a second term as a write-in by a margin of nearly 10,300 votes over Republican candidate Joe Miller, who had the endorsement of Sarah Palin, the Republican former governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate.
James Muller, a political scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has taught politics in Alaska since 1983, says that environmental policy could be one of the biggest ballot deciders in bush regions, though it’s hard to say which side would prevail.
“There’s a difference in opinion amongst those who live there about the relative importance of the possibility for jobs that involve resource extraction,” he says, “and the various dangers of environmental change that might threaten subsistence hunting and fishing”.
Forrest Nabors, chair of the political science department at University of Alaska Anchorage, said he suspects coronavirus policy will be of particular importance in rural Alaska.
“Alaska Natives were hit very hard 100 years ago” by the 1918 influenza pandemic, he says. “Some communities were wiped out, so I suspect that could sway their vote.”
Kendra Kloster, the executive director of Native Peoples Action, says that Alaska Natives bring diverse concerns to elections, ranging from policy surrounding the Alaska Marine Highway to fishing and hunting regulations, environmental issues, and beyond.
One possible wild card in the remaining votes is the presence of candidate John Wayne Howe, whose Alaskan Independence Party advocates seceding from the United States to become a new nation. With just under 13,000 votes as of Nov. 11, this election marks the first time that the party has garnered a notable percentage of ballots in a Senate race.
Bailey Berg is a freelance journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska. Twitter: @baileybergs