It could come down to a coin toss: A race that may decide control of the Alaska House of Representatives is now tied.
According to complete pre-recount figures released by the Alaska Division of Elections on Wednesday afternoon, Republican candidate Bart LeBon and Democratic candidate Kathryn Dodge have each earned 2,161 votes in the race for Alaska House District 1.
“This was not something I was expecting to hear today,” LeBon said by phone.
Dodge said she was “grateful and surprised” by the result.
Final certification of the election results is scheduled for Monday, Alaska Division of Elections spokeswoman Samantha Miller said, but the deadline for international absentee ballots to arrive in Fairbanks was Wednesday, and the elections office there concluded counting in the afternoon.
The tie leaves control of the Alaska House of Representatives uncertain. If LeBon wins, a Republican-aligned caucus will control 21 seats, the minimum needed for a majority. Control of the majority allows a caucus to elect the speaker of the House and set the agenda for the two-year legislative term.
“For the political world in Alaska, this is going to be an exciting week,” LeBon said. “If I lose, the House is going to be 20-20, and there’s going to have to be some serious reorganizing, decisions made by a number of folks.”
In the 2017-2018 Legislature, control of the House rested with a 22-person coalition majority that included 17 Democrats, two independents and three Republicans. One of those Republicans, Paul Seaton of Homer, lost his race for re-election to Republican Sarah Vance after choosing to run as a Democratic-aligned nonpartisan candidate. One independent, Jason Grenn of Sand Lake, lost to Republican Sara Rasmussen.
On the other side of the aisle in the 2017-2018 Legislature was an 18-member Republican minority. With two coalition seats flipped to the minority, each side had 20 members.
Then came House District 1, formerly occupied by Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.
Rather than run for re-election, Kawasaki chose to run for Alaska Senate. He defeated Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, but the race to replace Kawasaki appeared to favor Republican Bart LeBon.
LeBon held a 79-vote advantage over Dodge, the Democrat, on Election Day, but votes counted afterward changed that result. One week after Election Day, officials counted remaining early votes and questioned ballots. That gave Dodge a 10-vote lead. Three days after that, officials counted absentee ballots that again switched the result and gave LeBon a five-vote lead.
Then came Wednesday’s final tally. Under state law, absentee ballots mailed from international addresses can arrive at the Division of Elections as late as 15 days after Election Day, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day itself.
None arrived, but during an audit by the bipartisan State Review Board, officials found that seven votes were not read properly by the state’s optical scan machines, Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke said by phone.
One, for example, was torn, and the machine didn’t read it properly. Other ballots were registered by the machines as blank, but in reality contained votes for one candidate or the other.
Among the seven “undervoted” ballots (to use the division’s terminology), six were for Dodge; one was for LeBon.
When the new votes were added, the two candidates were tied.
LeBon and Dodge each said they were unaware the audit was under way. LeBon said he was disappointed that elections officials didn’t inform the campaigns so they could have observers present.
“It’s a shame that there were not outside observers in that procedure,” he said.
The review board is scheduled to audit additional absentee ballots Friday, meaning the result could change once more before the election is finalized Monday. LeBon and Dodge each said the audit will cover 552 ballots; division officials said about 600 will be involved.
If Monday’s certified results also indicate a tie, state law provides for a recount. That recount has been scheduled for Nov. 30.
If the race is still tied after a recount (either candidate could also challenge the result in court), state law calls for the election to be decided with the flip of a coin.
That last happened in 2006, when Democratic candidate Bryce Edgmon tied Republican candidate Carl Moses. Edgmon won the toss and the election, going on to become speaker of the House in 2017. The results of this year’s tie will decide whether he remains in that leadership role.