‘Pins and needles’: Alaska legislative candidates in close races wait out election results

A Man in a plaid shirt, playing with his children
Denny Wells, Democratic candidate for House District 15, spends time with his children Monday evening as he waits for election results. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Ranked choice voting has changed how candidates campaign, and how Alaskans vote. It’s also changed the pace of the election cycle. Previously, on election night or shortly after, many candidates had a pretty good sense of where they stood. 

This year, when so much hinges on how voters’ ranked their second or third choices, it’s much more unclear how close races will shake out.

So, those would-be legislators have just had to wait it out.

“I have no predictions,” said Republican Cathy Giessel. She’s running in a three-way race for a South Anchorage state Senate seat after a two-year hiatus from state Legislature. She and her opponents, incumbent Republican Roger Holland and Democrat Roselynn Cacy, each have about a third of the vote. 

Giessel is slightly ahead, but her path to victory depends on how many voters ranked her second on their ballots. 

Alaskans are used to waiting awhile for election results because the deadline to receive absentee ballots is about two weeks after Election Day. Now, it’s also the day ranked choice tabulation kicks in in races where no candidate has more than 50% of the vote.

Giessel said while she thinks 15 days might be a little excessive, she’s happy to wait to find out. 

“I’ve been prepared all along that it would take a while,” she said. 

In the meantime, Giessel said she’s been attending resource development conferences, sending out her newsletter and catching up on less political activities. 

“I’m also doing some quilting, which I haven’t been able to do for a while, and painting some rooms in my house. And I just finished refinishing some furniture,” she said. “So yes, doing lots of fun things too.”

It’s a similar situation for Maxine Dibert, a Democrat running for state House for the first time in Fairbanks. She has just under 50% of first-choice votes, and the rest is split between her Republican opponents, incumbent Bart LeBon and Kelly Nash. 

“I am a little bit on pins and needles, just kind of waiting,” she said. 

Dibert said she knew it was going to be close. In 2018, LeBon won his race by a single vote against his Democratic opponent. 

For LeBon to win again, he’d need a significant amount of Nash’s second-choice votes. But Nash campaigned encouraging her voters not to rank LeBon at all.

Dibert, who has been teaching third grade full-time throughout her campaign, said the lack of unity between her Republican opponents is a boost.

“I feel… pretty good. I’m able to sleep at night and continue to focus on the classroom,” she said.

Still in the midst of an Anchorage state House race, Democrat Denny Wells also has almost half the vote and two Republican opponents behind him. He said he went into election night knowing he probably wouldn’t have a definitive answer.

“I’m in the same boat that I walked into that date with, which is it’ll be close, and we’ll know on the 23rd. And we’re still there,” he said.

Since then, Wells has been tracking each incremental update to the ballot count in a spreadsheet, to try to suss out his chances.

And he said he’s optimistic. He’s had a little time to breathe and spend time with his family after the intensity of his first-ever campaign, and now he’s thinking about what’s next.

“What’s the literal next step I need to take to work out logistics of going to Juneau?” he said. “Because never having done it, it’s going to be all a new learning curve”

The Division of Elections will do a final count of overseas absentee ballots today. If no candidate in a given race reaches more than 50% of the vote, the Division will tabulate second, third, and potentially in some cases fourth-choice votes to determine a winner. 

Tabulation is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. Here’s how to watch.

RELATED: Here’s what to expect during Alaska’s ranked choice tabulation this afternoon

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.