After the election mess in Shungnak, a small village in remote Northwest Alaska, residents of the 49th state ought to be very concerned about the performance of new Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke.
If she was quoted correctly in the newspaper, and there’s always a possibility she wasn’t, it would appear she doesn’t understand Alaska’s primary election process.
What happened in Shungnak, was simple. The 50 people who participated in the primary election Tuesday voted two primary ballots: the Republican ballot and the joint Democrat, Libertarian and Alaska Independence Party ballot, the so-called ADL ballot.
By law, voters are required to pick one and only one. Election poll workers are supposed to ensure this happens. They didn’t do so in Shungyak. The reaction of Bahnke was that this is no big deal.
The Alaska Dispatch News reported her concluding “there’s no need to redo the election because voters didn’t vote twice in any race, including in the Alaska House District 40 contest, covering the Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs.
“‘It’s not like there’s double votes,’ she said.”
That’s true. It’s also not the problem in the District 40 community of Shungnak.
The problem there is that some people who voted the Democrat ballot shouldn’t have been allowed to vote that ballot. In a race where two Democrats – incumbent Ben Nageak and challenger Dean Westlake – are separated by five votes, this matters
And it really, really matters in this specific case because the winning candidate will run unopposed in the general election. The winner of the primary wins this election.
“No one got to vote more than once in the ADL primary. That is really the line,” Bahnke told the Dispatch.
But that isn’t the line at all. The line is this:
If even seven residents of Shungnak had picked the Republican ballot, and thus been prohibited from voting the ADL ballot, this election would now be tied. If the number had been eight, Nageak would now be one vote ahead.
You can run that progression out as far as you want. If everyone in Shungnak had decided to vote the Republican ballot, and thus been barred from casting a vote in the Democrat race, Nageak would now be 43 votes in front of Westlake instead of five behind.
So how many people would have picked the Republican ballot over the ADL ballot if told they had to make that choice? Nobody knows.
But it is worth noting Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young collected 46 and 42 votes respectively in the Shungnak primary. Murkowski and Young are largely revered in rural Alaska for trying their damnedest to funnel federal funding to the economically troubled region.
It is likely some folks in Shungnak would have picked the Republican ballot over the ADL ballot just so they could show their support for Young and Murkowski. How many? Half the voters, a third? More? Less?
Again no one knows because no one can know. You can’t unwind this mess and say what the results would be if the election had been conducted legally. If Bahnke doesn’t think this a problem, we all have a problem.
The cornerstone of democracy isn’t election-day turn out, it’s ballot integrity. There are lot of folks in this state now wringing their hands over the astonishingly low voter turn out for this election. It was 15 percent, the worst in state history.
Take that as a good sign. Eighty-five percent of Alaskans decided government is working well enough they didn’t need to go to the polls. Turnout in this country is largely just a gauge of how upset voters are with government or a candidate.
Turnout is vastly over-rated. Election integrity is not.
Democracy dies not because people fail to vote but because their votes don’t matter. The now-gone Soviet Union had a turnout of 98-99 percent. The turnout was meaningless because the elections were meaningless. The Soviet Union was totalitarian state where the Communist Party controlled who ran and who got elected.
Soviet elections were crooked from the start. Ours are supposed to be governed by rules that ensure they are honest. The rules weren’t followed in Shungnak. The failure to follow the rules puts the integrity of the whole District 40 election in doubt.
One can only hope that when all is said and done, after all the absentee and question ballots are counted, one of these candidates wins by 50 or more votes to bump the whole question of Shungnak aside.
But, in the meantime, Bahnke needs to wake up. The single most important job of the director of elections is to protect the integrity of the ballot box. If she really doesn’t think what happened in Shungnak matters, she just failed at that job.