Alaska rejected more than 7,500 ballots in the US House special primary. Here’s why.

I Voted sticker (Photo by Maggie Schoenfeld)

More than 7,500 ballots were rejected in the special primary election to fill the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term, according to the final vote tally. 

That’s a statewide rejection rate of 4.55%, double the rejection rate from the 2020 primary. The final ballot rejection rate in rural Alaska communities was even higher, with about 1 in 8 ballots not being counted. The primary was Alaska’s first statewide by-mail election.

According to a report from the Division of Elections, the biggest reason for rejections was a lack of a witness signature, accounting for more than a third of rejected ballots. Roughly 25% of ballots were rejected because they were postmarked or handed in after the deadline, while a fifth weren’t counted because the ballot didn’t have a numerical identifier, like a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a voter’s social security number. 

State Division of Elections spokeswoman Tiffany Montemayor says while officials are concerned any time they have to reject a ballot, they’re bound by state law. 

“If there is not a voter signature, a voter identifier, a witness signature and a postmark on or before Election Day the ballot cannot count,” Montemayor said. “These provisions have been in place for decades.”

Generally, rural Alaska — communities off the road system with populations that tend to be majority Alaska Native — had the highest rejection rates at around 13.74%. More than half of those rejections were because of a lack of witness signature. 

Within rural Alaska, the region covering Bethel and surrounding  Yukon-Kuskokwim villages had the highest rejection rate in the state, at around 17%, or 1 in 6 ballots. Almost two-thirds of rejections were due to a lack of witness signature. 

Bethel Mayor Mark Springer says he believes there wasn’t enough outreach to residents in those communities, many of whom don’t speak English as a first language. 

“You know, they ran a lot of ads, but the majority of the ones I heard were in English,” Springer said. “They just said the special election is on such-and-such date. Not heavy emphasis on, ‘You’ve got to do this right. Only vote for one, and make sure you get a witness signature.’”

Montemayor said the Division of Elections spent more money on educational outreach in English and Alaska Native languages than any prior Alaska election. She said the division also did a live Yup’ik interview on Bethel public radio station KYUK that emphasized ballot requirements, and a collaboration with Yuit Communications to ensure the information given to Native corporations was accurate and the same as information given out in English. 

“For the first time in history, voters in communities designated as requiring language assistance were directly mailed translated information about the election and instructions on how to vote a by-mail ballot,” Montemayor said.

The witness signature requirement on mail-in ballots has been a point of contention in Alaska, with opponents of the requirement calling it a bureaucratic roadblock. In 2020, a Superior Court ruled the witness signature requirement was unconstitutional due to the pandemic making it difficult for people to gather. As a result, the requirement was suspended for that year’s election, though Montemayor said the law remained on the books. She said the special primary this year was conducted using that law. 

“Witness signatures are required by law, which lawmakers can change,” she said. “It is also true that witness signatures may be ‘any mark’ and the division does not match witness—or voter—signatures against signatures it has on file.”

Some lawmakers have pointed to ballot curing, a process allowing voters to address issues with their ballots, as a potential solution to the high rate of rejections. In 24 states, officials will notify residents if there is an issue with their ballot and allow them to make any needed changes before counting it. In Alaska, the state will notify someone by mail if their ballot is rejected, but only 10 days after the election is certified.

Legislation to allow for ballot curing failed in the state Legislature, and Montemayor said the division can’t allow for the process on its own. 

“Without legal authority to count ballots that have been cured, the division does not have the authority to do so by emergency regulation.” Montemayor said. 

The high rate of rural Alaska ballot rejections has garnered frustration from several Democratic lawmakers and Alaska Native advocates who sent letters to state officials earlier this month demanding answers about rejection rates and solutions, saying the system was unfairly silencing the voices of Alaska Natives. 

RELATED: About 1 in 8 rural Alaska ballots have been rejected in special primary, raising red flags with lawmakers

While the state doesn’t have another mail-in election scheduled for the near future, Bethel Mayor Springer said the state has a lot of work to do before it conducts another one. 

“It’s absolutely imperative that the Division of Elections and the lieutenant governor learn some powerful lessons from the outcome of this,” Springer said. “Do some deep diving, do some root cause analysis and make damn sure that the next time we have a mail-in ballot, we have nowhere near as many rejected ballots.”
The remaining three elections this year — the general election to fill the rest of Young’s term and the regular primary and general elections — will be conducted through traditional means as opposed to by-mail. Alaskans who vote absentee will still be required to get a witness signature.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.