At least 26,400 votes are still left to be counted in the Aug. 16 election in Alaska. Democrat Mary Peltola currently leads the special general election race to fill the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term with about 38% of the votes counted so far ranking her first. The remaining more than 60% of votes are mostly split between two Republican candidates.
Whoever comes in third place in this race will be eliminated first under the state’s new ranked choice voting system. While it remains to be seen how the uncounted votes might shape final results, it’s highly unlikely third-place finisher Republican Nick Begich will overtake former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for second place. But how his voters completed the rest of the ballot could determine the winner.
Of the absentee votes that have come in and been counted, about 44% of them ranked Peltola in first place, said Robert Hockema, a political organizer, data analyst and campaign manager for Cliff Groh for state House. Hockema predicts that trend will continue.
“I think that a lot of the districts that we have coming in with their absentee votes are going to lean overwhelmingly towards Peltola. I think the special primary from June – and just the general electorate that we have to deal with – definitely shows that the absentee ballots are going to be overwhelmingly favorable to Peltola,” he said.
Current second-place finisher Palin has so far received about 29% of the absentee votes that have been counted and Begich 26.5%. Begich would need to get about 37 percent of the remaining ballots to overtake Palin, which Hockema said is exceedingly unlikely.
“Palin would have to only be winning 18% of the remaining ballots. Unless Palin just gets obliterated in some landslide in these districts in a way that she didn’t in the June primary, I don’t see Begich winning 37% of the remaining ballots. That’s a pretty slim possibility,” he said.
Begich optimistic that distance from Palin will tighten up
Begich said Friday he’s optimistic about how the remaining votes will impact how he finishes. He said his campaign made an effort to reach early and absentee voters.
“We remain optimistic that we’re going to see things tighten up. How far they tighten, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Begich said.
His campaign’s main focus is on the November general election.
“The vote that’s out there has already been voted, right? There’s nothing that we can do to change what’s already out there. So, just like everyone else, we’re waiting to see how the returns come in, and clearly remain hopeful. But our focus is on November,” Begich said.
If Begich remains in third place, as is expected, who wins the race will come down to who Begich supporters ranked second. It’s anybody’s guess, he said, adding that he made his second choice clear.
“I was asked many times who I would put second and I made clear I would put Palin second on my ballot. The other two candidates did not, at any point to my knowledge, make clear who they would put second if they would put anyone second at all,” Begich said.
Hockema said that doesn’t match the toxic campaign environment. He said both Begich and Palin ran negative campaigns against each other, which didn’t benefit Begich.
“I think he’s retroactively being generous to Sarah,” Hockema said.
What’s going to decide the race for Peltola, Hockema said, is the issue of ballot exhaustion, or bullet voting. That’s when voters don’t rank their ballot completely; for instance, only filling in the bubble next to one name and not ranking anyone else. Those ballots are not counted towards the final total once their preferred candidate gets eliminated.
On average, 30% of ballots in ranked choice voting elections nationwide are exhausted, Hockema said. On the lower end, around 15% of ballots were exhausted in the New York mayoral primary.
“So somewhere between maybe 15 and 30% of Nick Begich’s voters are not going to get transferred to Palin. Maybe they will,” Hockema said, “but I think a lot of people are just going to not rank the second Republican because the energy between the campaigns is really, really bad.”
The Palin campaign did not reply to interview requests.
What Peltola’s campaign wants to see
Within the more than 26,000 votes still left to be counted, Peltola’s campaign wants to see the Democrat increase her lead.
“The benchmark that I’ve been working on is, if we can hit 40% that really puts us in a good position for the next round of ranked choice voting,” said Burke Croft, data manager at Ship Creek Group, which is a contractor for the Peltola campaign. “We’re hoping to make sure we have a strong enough lead to be able to win when Begich’s votes get recycled to stay in that lead.”
Croft said with absentee votes skewing progressive, Peltola has a good shot of hitting 40%.
“If Peltola doesn’t get 40%, there’s still a chance that with Begich-Peltola votes or people who only ranked Begich, Peltola could still end up winning the race,” Croft said.
The Division of Elections said the next results update will be on Tuesday. The ranked choice voting tabulation is not happening until Aug. 31, when final results will be available.
For more elections news visit alaskapublic.org/elections.
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