As state counts votes by hand, lawmakers in Anchorage complain

On Monday morning in Centennial Hall, the sound of democracy was the sound of shuffled papers.

Half a state away, it was the sound of disturbed lawmakers.

As temporary workers from the Alaska Division of Elections hand-counted ballots from the Aug. 16 statewide primary, several state legislators have raised concerns with the way that the election was conducted. Their discomfort culminated Monday in a hearing of the Alaska Senate’s state affairs committee, which met as the regularly scheduled hand count took place in Juneau.

“The division will, I hope, take note of some of the issues we and the public have raised,” said Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who convened the informational hearing as a way to learn more about irregularities during the primary.

Those irregularities, which occurred mostly in rural House districts, may have affected the result in the close District 40 House race, lawmakers contend.

The incumbent there, Democrat Benjamin Nageak, caucuses with the Republican-led House majority but lost his primary election to Dean Westlake by 21 votes.

No concrete action was taken at Monday’s hearing, which allowed lawmakers and members of the public to vent their frustrations with perceived elections flaws.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made elections flaws a particular point of emphasis during his campaign, often complaining about a “rigged” system.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, suggested that lawmakers could craft a letter to the governor, “asking him to delay certification of the election … until greater scrutiny had been afforded to this situation,” but it did not appear that any such action was imminent.

Monday’s hearing took place in Anchorage, distant from the state capitol, where hand-counting of the election results proceeded in a quiet and orderly fashion.

Hand-counting is part of the regular process of each state election. The division randomly selects precincts across the state and ships that precinct’s ballots to Juneau. Temporary workers here sort and manually page through the papers, counting each one by hand.

Within the Sheffield Ballroom, 18 teams of two workers split the cardboard-boxed votes among themselves and worked with rubber-gloved thumbs.

The hand-count result of each race must be within 1 percent of the number of ballots cast in that precinct, or the result is sent on to the State Review Board for additional scrutiny.

Imagine a precinct where 300 people voted, and there was a race that got 50 votes for one candidate, 100 for another, and 150 for a third candidate. The hand count for each of those candidates may be off by only 3 votes — 1 percent of the 300 votes cast in the precinct — and still acceptable.

One of the randomly selected precincts, Chefornak in House District 38, was also a precinct eyed for irregularities by the Senate hearing. The irregularities in Chefornak were not expected to affect the results of any race, but they cast doubt on the elections process as a whole, lawmakers said.

A Division of Elections employee who answered the phones at the central office Monday evening said the hand-count was not yet complete, and there was not yet word on whether any precinct results would be forwarded to the state review board.

Under Alaska statutes, a defeated candidate or 10 qualified voters may challenge the results of an election in court within 10 days of the election’s certification.

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