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Poll workers handle adjustment to ranked choice on double election day

Voters fill out their ballots at the District 2 polling location on Aug. 16.
Riley Board
Voters fill out their ballots at the District 2 polling location on Aug. 16.

Alaskans headed to the polls today to participate in the first ever statewide ranked-choice election. Polls opened at 7 a.m. this morning and will be open until 8 p.m.

On one half of the two-sided ballot, voters can rank their top candidates for U.S. House in a special general election to temporarily fill the late Congressman Don Young’s seat. On the other, they can vote in the statewide primary — a pick-one primary — and choose candidates for U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Alaska governor and lieutenant governor, state senator and state representative.

This is the first ever election in Alaska that uses ranked-choice voting, a system voters approved in the 2020 general election.

In Kenai on Tuesday, a steady trickle of voters turned out to the three polling locations to give it a try. Precincts 1 and 3 vote in separate rooms at the Kenai Mall, while Precinct 2 voters can cast their ballots at the Challenger Learning Center.

Taylor Galley is a poll worker at that Precinct 2 polling site, where she said it has been a steadily busy day.

“It’s been exciting. We’ve seen a lot of return voters. A lot of new voters. A couple people have told us it’s their first time voting, which is very exciting,” Galley said.

When it comes to dealing with the unfamiliar ranked-choice voting system, Galley said she’s been hearing mixed feedback.

“We’ve heard both ends of the spectrum. Some people like it, some people definitely have not liked it,” she said. “And a lot of people have been frustrated by it, trying to understand how to use it during the votes.”

Galley said a handful of times, poll workers have had to provide a voter with a second ballot, because they made an error while filling one out.

She said more than ranked choice, voters at her precinct are struggling with the fact that they’re voting for the U.S. House seat twice, on both sides of the ballot.

Because Young died while serving his term, three candidates — Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III, and Democrat Mary Peltola — are vying for his seat. The candidate who wins the general election will serve for the rest of Young’s term, which will end this coming January.

But on the other side of the ballot, voters are picking a candidate for the upcoming full two-year house term. Begich, Palin and Peltola are all on that ballot, too, along with more than a dozen other candidates.

At the Kenai Mall, Carol Freas said that as a poll worker, she’s received a lot of questions about ranked choice.

But she said those questions are often more about strategy than anything else, as voters wonder how to hedge their bets with the new system. Poll workers can’t answer those questions.

“We can point to the directions that are on the ballot, on both sides of the ballot and in the booth, and hope that they can make a choice the way they want to.”

At the District 1 location, there had been 14 spoiled ballots as of Tuesday afternoon — those are ballots that are scrapped because of an error.

Freas explained that when a voter submits their ballots to the machine after filling it out, that machine will sometimes indicate an error. At that point, the voter can either carry forward with their vote as is or ‘spoil’ their ballot and start over. Freas said all errors today have been on the special election, ranked-choice side of the ballot.

“I think that it’s been a learning curve for everybody. Hopefully in November it won’t be quite as difficult for people,” she said.

Freas said attendance at her polling location has been steady since 7 a.m. and she’s been excited about the turnout.

Taylor Galley has been encouraged about the turnout in her precinct, and reminds voters that it isn’t too late to cast their votes.

“We’ve seen close to 200 people and we’re open until 8, so we’ve got lots more time for people to come vote,” she said.

Voters will have to wait until Aug. 31 for final results in the U.S. House special election. That’s because Alaska law allows ballots from military and students overseas to arrive up to 15 days after the election, as long as the ballot is postmarked by the daydate of the election. Preliminary results that show voters’ first choice will be published tonight, although experts warn that these may be misleading because of the nature of ranked choice voting.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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