How Alaska handles election security

A woman in a blue shirt helping another woman with her voting ballot
Courtney Newman, an election official, helps a voter turn in her ballot on Aug. 16, at Turnagain United Methodist Church in Anchorage. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Division of Elections officials say they have a solid system of checks and balances in place that have long proved that state elections are fair, honest and secure. 

But misinformation, skepticism and hostility around election integrity are taking their toll on Alaska election workers. They’ve had a lot of practice addressing frequently asked questions, like these. 

What are state election officials most concerned about lately? 

Homegrown misinformation, especially from social media, according to Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who’s responsible for oversight of the Division of Elections. Meyer said some people just can’t be convinced to trust Alaska’s election results. 

“They still seem to believe the MyPillow guy before they’ll believe me or even some of our regional supervisors,” Meyer said. “So that’s been a little frustrating. And I don’t know how we can get around that.”

Meyer’s talking about Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow. He’s more famous now for promoting false claims about election fraud than for his business. 

Meyer said when he began the job four years ago, malicious foreign actors were top of mind. They’re still in play, but now skeptics and deniers – like Lindell and his supporters – are complementing foreign efforts to undermine our democracy. 

Does all this scrutiny and skepticism impact how the state runs elections?  

The division’s processes and procedures haven’t changed much. Substantive changes require changes in state law, which don’t happen often. 

But there are other impacts. Meyer said one regional election supervisor told him he felt like he was going to get punched in the face during a recent primary. The supervisor quit. Meyer said it was already tough to recruit and retain election workers without a work environment that is sometimes abusive. 

Fortunately, Elections Operations Manager Carol Thompson said she’s not aware of any major personal threats against Alaska election workers, like have been reported in other states

But if there aren’t enough election workers, that can mean longer lines and fewer polling places. Meyer said finding workers is especially tough in rural Alaska. He said if the worker situation keeps getting worse, Alaska may have to switch to an entirely vote-by-mail system. 

How do we know vote counts are accurate? 

Election workers test the machines used to count our votes at our polling places before they’re used in the field. If one were somehow compromised, testing would likely reveal it before any real ballots were scanned. 

After a ballot is scanned, it isn’t discarded. With few exceptions, state law requires a hand count of those physical ballots from one randomly selected precinct for every House district in the state where at least 5% of the ballots were cast. There’s 40 House districts. If a hand count is off from the machine count by more than 1%, that’s a red flag. Election officials started doing this in 1998, and they have never hit that threshold. The discrepancies they do find are usually caused by ballots that are poorly marked that the machines can’t read, according to materials the Division of Elections prepared in May

Meyer said the division took things further after the 2020 election. They did a hand count of the statewide vote for a close ballot measure question, the one that led to open primaries and ranked choice voting. Across hundreds of individual voting precincts, the vast majority were spot on. Some were off by a few votes in one direction or the other. After hand counting more than 340,000 ballots, there was a net change of 171 votes. The overall ratio of yes and no votes only changed by about one one-hundredth of a percent. 

Meyer said with more than 2,000 workers involved in elections, errors do happen. 

“But again, there’s enough checks and balances in place that if we do make a mistake, we’re gonna catch it,” he said. 

Are the ballot scanners themselves secure? 

In two ways. Physically, when they’re not in use, they’re stored in monitored rooms with alarms on them. Access is limited and logged. Thompson, who’s been with the Division of Elections for 32 years, says she’s dealt with her share of 2 a.m. alarms. 

“So if somebody were to break in, bells and whistles go off – including if it’s a mouse,” she said. 

Which has actually happened. An “Ocean’s Eleven” dream team of hackers and burglars? Not so much.  

The other way the machines are secured is through “air gapping.” That’s network security jargon that just means the machines involved in counting votes are not on any networks, they don’t talk to each other electronically, they don’t have Bluetooth or wifi. 

Between the air gap and physical security measures, the idea is they’d be extremely hard to hack. 

Election Security Officer Stephen Mattson said the scanners at precincts do briefly get connected to an external cellular modem to transmit results, then unplugged. But again, there are checks to make sure what was sent matches what was received, and there is another air gap to cross to get those results into tabulator machines. 

A tamper-evident seal on a locking zipper on bags of the Alaska Division of Elections uses to securely transport election materials
An election worker shows how a tamper-evident seal — the red tab — works with a locking zipper on bags used to transport election materials securely in this still from an Alaska Division of Elections training video. It’s one of many security measures the division employs.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly recently voted to ban machine counts. How will that affect our elections? 

That was a Mat-Su Borough level decision that specifically affects Mat-Su Borough elections, beginning next year. It doesn’t affect the state’s election procedures, or how state election workers that happen to be in the Mat-Su count votes in statewide elections, like the one Nov. 8.

Can individual voters verify that their ballots were received? 

It depends. For people who’ve jumped through the hoops to specifically request an absentee ballot, which nearly 54,000 people have this year – yes. You can call your regional elections office, or go to myvoterinformation.alaska.gov and see when your ballot was sent to you, and when or if the Division of Elections has received it. 

Early voting in person is a little different. Those ballots are treated more like regular Election Day ballots. They go right into the state’s custody. 

As of Tuesday, the Division of Elections had already received nearly 44,000 ballots

However, there is no way to check if your specific ballot has been counted, because that could reveal how you voted. Different types of ballots get pooled together before they’re counted. It’s a tradeoff with the right to a secret ballot. 

I want to dig deeper! 

State election officials have put together a lot of information about their procedures, safeguards and security available at elections.alaska.gov.

If we missed your question, you can also email reporter Jeremy Hsieh at jhsieh@alaskapublic.org.

Find more election coverage and voter resources at alaskapublic.org/elections.

Want to know the story behind the story? Subscribe to Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin’s newsletter, Alaska At-Large.

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Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.