State Democratic party leaders say they've received about 18,000 mailed-in primary-election ballots before today’s deadline. That’s nearly twice as many as were cast in the 2016 caucuses. Democrats say that’s a great response, especially because they canceled in-person balloting less than three weeks ago over concerns it would expose voters to the coronavirus.
Alaska Democratic Party Chair Casey Steinau says she and other party leaders worried that turnout for this year’s presidential preference primary would suffer because party leaders decided on March 23 to cancel in-person voting. But she says they’re feeling a lot better about that now, given the number of ballots they’d received as of Wednesday afternoon.
“The 17,850 is phenomenal, and we’re very excited about that,” she said, adding that that’s many more ballots than were cast by Democrats during the caucuses the party held four years ago.
“The number from 2016, to give you some perspective, was just over 10,000,” she said. “So, that’s 7,000-plus more Alaskans who get to participate.”
But that number does not include ballots that came into the party’s mailbox on Thursday, the deadline day.
“They’re all sitting there in their envelopes, and they’ll be counted beginning April 10th, in Anchorage,” says Luke Hopkins, a state Democratic party vice chair representing the Interior. He says this year’s primary not only attracted more balloting – it’s also been a lot easier to participate in than the long, convoluted caucuses that the party conducted in 2016.
“We had thousands of people show up here in Fairbanks at the Carlson Center for the in-person caucuses that we had, and long lines going down the street,” he added.
Hopkins says if Democrats had decided to allow in-person primary voting, both poll workers and voters would’ve run the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. He says that’s what happened Tuesday in Wisconsin, where Democratic efforts to cancel in-person voting were stymied by Republicans, whose legislators also slashed the number of polling places statewide.
“In the major cities, there’s serious, long lines that they’re having … during this pandemic,” Hopkins said.
Alaska Democrats hope to have a tally of the primary ballots by early next week. It’ll take some time to sort out the votes, because the party for the first time issued so-called ranked-choice ballots, which allow voters to choose their top five candidates and rank them according to their first through fifth preferences.
Steinau says many party members have been wanting to try ranked-choice ballots, and this year’s crowded primary field created the perfect opportunity.
“If their candidate dropped out for some reason,” she said, “they still have a vote.”
Steinau says the pandemic also compelled the party to convert its second stage of the state nominating process – the April 18 caucuses of party officials in all 40 House districts – from the usual in-person get-togethers to an online affair. Likewise, the Democrats’ May 16th party convention also will be conducted online.
“This is unchartered territory,” she said, “and I am continuing to be impressed with the flexibility of our folks, as we move through this process.”
Steinau says the promising number of early mailed-in ballots has convinced many party officials to place greater emphasis on mail-in voting, especially during primaries. But she believes caucuses and especially the convention should be conducted in person in the years ahead.
“I think it’s very important that people have the traditional experience and actually sit in a room and discuss things and meet one another,” she said.
Republicans in Alaska and just about all other states declined to hold primary elections this year, and instead pledged their support for the incumbent, President Trump.