Why some people appear to vote twice in Alaska’s election data

Blue fabric bozes on rollers
Election materials sit at the Anchorage offices of the Alaska Division of Elections on Aug. 28, 2018. This year’s mail-in ballot trends aren’t raising alarms at the Division of Elections. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

A data nerd in Juneau who likes digging through Alaska’s voter rolls found something strange: scores of apparent double votes in the August primaries, and one person who already appeared to have voted twice in the November general election. 

Will Muldoon describes himself as a “data hobbyist.”

“I’m really interested in all sorts of data that we put out as a state – [Department of Labor] live labor stats, power cost equalization, data points across the board. Elections is a big one.” 

Read more Alaska Public Media coverage of the 2020 election

For the last several years, he’s paid some administrative fees to have the Alaska Division of Elections send him a giant spreadsheet of public information on every Alaskan who’s registered to vote. 

It’s a monster spreadsheet. There are almost 600,000 rows. For each voter, it notes up to 16 of the most recent state and local elections they voted in. 

“And so, this year I had found 84 individuals that had participated in the primary twice and one individual that had participated in the general twice.”

In fact, the data shows that it’s common for a fraction of a fraction of 1% of voters to vote twice in elections. Which still raises questions. 

Tiffany Montemayor manages public relations for the Alaska Division of Elections. She confirmed the data accurately shows that some voters manage to submit more than one ballot in the same election. But — and this is a big, emphatic but — those voters do not get counted twice. The division’s normal procedures for logging ballots catches potential double votes as they come in before they’re counted.

Montemayor said the number of voters that Muldoon flagged doesn’t indicate anything nefarious. 

“No, there’s no conspiracy about that,” she said. “And in fact, there’s no evidence that suggests that voter fraud is even an issue anywhere but especially here in Alaska.” 

Her office sends the list of double voters to the state Department of Law for potential prosecution. Department of Law spokesperson Maria Bahr said the last time they prosecuted a case involving any Alaska voting law was in 2011. 

“They’re all pretty much just on accident,” Montemayor said. “And no one was really trying to vote twice. We even get letters from people who realize they did, and they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry, I totally forgot, that I had already voted by mail.’”

In an email, Bahr explained: “There are instances where a voter does not recall or is unsure if they voted previously or where they are concerned a ballot may not be received by the Division of Elections for purposes of counting votes. In such circumstances, the voter had no intent that multiple ballots be counted for them and thus no crime has occurred.”  

On Sept. 2, President Donald Trump told supporters to send in ballots by mail, and then go vote in person in case the mail ballot doesn’t get counted. https://www.youtube.com/embed/8MTyiWFu4Rc?feature=oembed

Voting twice with the intent of being counted twice is a felony in Alaska.

“So, really, really, do not do it,” Montemayor said. “No matter who tells you to do it.”

Voting closed in Alaska’s primaries before Trump gave his problematic advice

Muldoon was still curious to hear how someone who voted twice would explain it. 

“My biggest one, and it’s not accusatory at all, it’s just a better understanding of how that happened to come about, you know?” he said. “Like, did you request a ballot, and then you got cold feet? Or you know, kind of, how does that come about?”

The one person in his data set who, as of Sept. 28, had voted twice in the general election is named Gary Erber.

Reached at his home on the south side of Anchorage, Erber explained what happened. He voted early, and then the Division of Elections called him.

“They were going to send out a replacement ballot,” Erber said. “And I said, ‘Well, I already mailed the one back.’ And she said, ‘Well, we’ll destroy that.”

There was a printing error on his initial ballot.

Montemayor with the Division of Elections said Erber’s case was one of 48 bad ballots that voters accessed electronically in the general election. The misprint only affected a small batch of absentee ballots sent to people in House District 28, specifically on Sept. 18. Montemayor said they’re on top of it.  

I asked Erber if the Division of Elections’ timely actions gave him confidence about this year’s election results. At first, he said “not really,” but then qualified his answer. 

“Well, I just think if they’re sending out that many ballots — I think we’re all right here in Alaska,” he said. “Because when we get our absentee ballot, I mean, you have to go through it, you gotta give them your voter number. They send you an ID before you do it. I think we do a good job up here.”

Mail-in ballot trends this year aren’t raising alarms at the Division of Elections. Though, there is one issue Montemayor is especially wary of. 

“Misinformation is, it’s a bigger threat than probably anything else with the election,” she said. 

One final point. Among the 84 people who double-voted in the primaries, there does not appear to be a partisan pattern. That is, Republicans, Democrats, undeclared voters and nonpartisans? They all did it. 

Mailed in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3.

Will Muldoon is a former KTOO board member. 

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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