Alaska elections chief, never one for drama, makes an orderly exit after a big year

a woman in a sweater poses for a photo, seated at a table
Gail Fenumiai in the Anchorage office of the Division of Elections in 2014. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

After 32 years of state service, Gail Fenumiai has left her post as director of the Division of Elections. She moved in an orderly fashion to the exit, under her own power.

She is retiring just as Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom takes up her new duties, which include overseeing elections. But Fenumiai said no one asked her to resign and that the arrival of the new lieutenant governor is coincidental.

“I started thinking about this in September,” Fenumiai said.

Nationally, doubt in the integrity of elections has threatened the fundamentals of democracy. But in Alaska, Fenumiai just kept going, a steady hand on the rudder, no matter what the wild 2022 election year threw at her. 

In March, she learned the slow march toward the state’s first ranked choice election would be a quick sprint, due to the death of Congressman Don Young and the sudden need for a special election.

In June, she administered the state’s first election conducted entirely by mail. 

In August, four months earlier than planned, she conducted the first ranked choice election. And, just to further challenge an elections administrator, that special election took place on the same day as the first regular primary. Which wasn’t all that regular because this year it was under new rules.

Fenumiai didn’t break a sweat.

“I didn’t personally feel that that was extremely stressful. I think we had a good plan in place,” she said Friday, her last day in the office.

Her mantra was just to follow the rules, as set out in election law. Even if the law is new, even if a special election pops up unexpectedly, even if they have extra obligations to educate the public about the new methods of voting.

“I’m very proud of all the staff at the division,” she said. “I’m gonna go back to the special primary, you know, the first all by mail election in the state, a very condensed timeframe in which to conduct it. And I think it went very, very well.”

Fenumiai hasn’t taken a position on whether the system Alaskans adopted in 2020, the nonpartisan primary coupled with a ranked choice general, is good or bad. She’s not going to spoil her neutrality by venturing an opinion on the way out the door.

“I think it’s really important that whoever’s in this job has that neutrality, no partisanship,” she said. “Because in this job, there’s no room for that at all.”

One person who has seen Fenumiai in action for years is Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall, the architect of Ballot Measure 2, which produced ranked choice voting. He witnessed peak Fenumiai in 2010, when he represented the U.S. Senate campaign of Lisa Murkowski during her historic write-in campaign. 

“Gosh, I think it was ultimately eight days, 10- or 12-hour days, you know, hand-counting write-in ballots,” Kendall recalled.

In a big warehouse in Juneau, Fenumiai personally reviewed thousands of challenged ballots. Hour after hour. Day after day. Kendall said he never saw her lose her composure. If she had a personal opinion about the merits of any ballot challenge, she didn’t let on. 

“I would never play poker with Gail Fenumiai,” Kendall said. “She just had this amazing demeanor of, you know, firm and confident, but just never lost her cool. Not once.”

Fenumiai said she has every confidence that Alaska will continue to conduct elections with the highest level of integrity and transparency. She advises any skeptics to sign up to be a poll worker. They’ll see how many checks and balances are built in, and how passionate the division staffers are about doing the job right.

As for Fenumiai, now that her state service is over, she plans to volunteer at her church. She’s interested in the food pantry and maybe the summer lunch program.

“Work has always taken a priority and now I’m going to shift my priorities elsewhere,” she said.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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