Last updated at 10:23 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 24

A simple mistake in last Tuesday’s primary election may have cost Barrow’s Rep. Benjamin Nageak his seat in the Legislature. Throughout the state, voters had to choose between a Republican or Democrat ballot, but in Shungnak, voters accidentally got both.

According to unofficial results, just five votes separate the two Democratic candidates — Nageak and Dean Westlake. There are 19 registered Republicans in Shungnak, who, had they chosen their own party’s ballot, would not have been allowed to weigh in on the race, which Westlake won overwhelmingly.

Division of Elections director Josie Bahnke said all polling officials receive training each election cycle, but the woman working the polls in Shungnak said she didn’t receive any.

“I did a few years ago in the last election they had for senators and stuff, but I haven’t had an election for a few years,” said Evelyn Woods, who is also the city’s clerk.

Woods said she tried to report the problem Tuesday night, but couldn’t.

“I tried to get ahold of them after, right after I closed down the polls at nine, but their phones were busy,” Woods said of the election office in Nome. “There’s a lot of other villages calling and I kept trying to get ahold of them that night, but they couldn’t get any answers and it was getting kind of late.”

In a prepared statement, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who oversees state elections, said he takes voting irregularities very seriously, but indicated he doesn’t think the extra votes are invalid.

“The Democratic Party allows any qualified voter to vote in their primary, so anyone who voted in their primary was legally entitled to do so under party rules,” he wrote. “Moreover, a candidate’s name appears on only one ballot, not multiple ballots, so no voter was able to cast more than one vote for any individual candidate.”

The Alaska Republican Party pointed its finger at Mallott for the mistake.

“Byron Mallott has two jobs: protect the state seal and run elections properly. This was incompetent administration of an election,” Alaska GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock wrote on Facebook.

Shungnak wasn’t the only anomaly this primary season. The Western Alaska village of Newtok reported a 105.58 percent voter turnout.

“Basically it was a data entry error,” Bahnke said. “It was a human error and it’s been fixed.”

Bahnke said the State Review Board will be verifying results statewide on Monday, Aug. 29. She said she expects certified election results to be available by Sept. 2.

According to state law, a defeated candidate or group of 10 voters can request a recount. If the difference is 20 votes or less, the state covers the cost of the recount. Nageak did not return calls on Monday about whether he would seek one.


Josie Bahnke issued the following response to KTVA in regards to this story:

Your web headline reads, “Mistake at the polls could cost North Slope representative his seat.” What happened in Shungnak is a serious issue. But to say that Representative Ben Nageak will lose his seat to an administrative mistake by the division is simply incorrect. By no means has either candidate lost or won this seat yet. Not all ballots have been counted and we do not expect to have a final count until the end of the week. Next Monday the State Review Board will meet in the Director’s Office and the hand count verification process will begin at Centennial Hall in Juneau. The ballots from Shungnak have been segregated and the bi-partisan State Review Board will have access to ballots and registers as they audit the primary election. If the final tally of ballots indicates that this poll worker error altered or could have altered the election outcome, then the division will be looking at options to remedy that fact.

KTVA 11’s Liz Raines can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.