Something’s Odd in Alaska
By Scott Horton
originally published in No Comment on Harpers.org
Election Day did not go off without a hitch, but compared with the last two general elections, 2008 seems to have functioned well–even given the historically high voter turnout. Moreover, the results suggest to us that the pollsters are getting ever better at their trade. (A salute once more to my favorite numerologist, Nate Silver, who projected the vote with astonishing precision.) Still there are some results that suggest that the system is being gamed—weirdness in Georgia and, as usual, Alabama. But the most striking of the irregularities by far come out of Alaska.
Two races in Alaska attracted national attention. One was the Senate race in which convicted felon Ted Stevens, the most senior Republican in the senate, sought a fresh mandate. His own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, called for his resignation, as did Governor Sarah Palin, who once headed one of his campaign PACs, and other G.O.P. leaders. But Stevens persisted. The other widely noted race was for the sole at-large house seat, held by Don Young, the so-called “prince of pork” who ranked high in a number of lists of “most corrupt” members of Congress. Polling showed both Stevens and Young failing in their efforts at reelection against Democratic opponents.
But as returns came in, it looks like Alaskans just can’t quit their felonious senior senator, or their pork barrel champion congressman. Both are coming out on top. Which suggests that the polling was well wide of the mark. Or was it? Something is very odd about those vote totals. As Nate Silver writes:
Stevens currently holds a lead of 3,353 votes, or about 1.5 percent of the votes tallied so far. But, there are quite a large number of ballots yet to count. According to Roll Call, these include “at least 40,000 absentee ballot, 9,000 early voting ballots, and an undetermined number of questionable ballots”. Indeed, it seems possible that the number of “questionable” ballots could be quite high. So far, about 220 thousand votes have been processed in Alaska. This compares with 313 thousand votes cast in 2004. After adding back in the roughly 50,000 absentee and early ballots that Roll Call accounts for, that would get us to 270 thousand ballots, or about a 14 percent drop from 2004. It seems unlikely that turnout would drop by 14 percent in Alaska given the presence of both a high-profile senate race and Sarah Palin at the top of the ticket.
But even if Begich were to make up ground and win a narrow victory, this would seem to represent a catastrophic failure of polling, as three polls conducted following the guilty verdict in Stevens’ corruption trial had Begich leading by margins of 7, 8 and 22 points, respectively.
The more likely answer is that someone has lost track of a very substantial part of the Alaska vote. Moreover, the disappeared votes appear to be disproportionately drawn from the Democratic column. Alaska, as John McCain taught us, has a long record of corrupt politics. Seems that this doesn’t stop with gratis home makeovers and bridges to nowhere.