Alaska Supreme Court rules Westlake the winner in House District 40

Dean Westlake

Dean Westlake was ebullient and seemed a little stunned Wednesday, an hour after learning the Alaska Supreme Court had upheld his August primary-election victory over incumbent North Slope Rep. Benjamin Nageak.

 

“Holy cow, I wasn’t expecting such a fast turnaround,” he said by phone just after 5 p.m. “My attorney contacted me and said we won. I’m just ecstatic.”

The decision by the Court to uphold Westlake’s Aug. 16 win was issued less than four hours after attorneys finished oral arguments in the issue.

The Court had said it would issue a verdict in the case by Friday, but Westlake said he heard the news from attorney Thomas Amodio just before 4 p.m.

No Republicans filed to enter the race for House District 40 ─ which encompasses the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs ─ so Westlake, now the winner of the Democratic primary, will become one of Alaska’s newest legislators when he begins serving in January.

“I’m glad that it’s over with, and now the real work begins,” Westlake said of his legal battles.

Those battles began soon after the Aug. 16 Democratic primary. Election-night returns showed Westlake with a small margin of victory. A recount allowed him to widen his lead to eight votes, 825-817.

Nageak challenged the election in court, citing mistakes made by election workers in several North Slope precincts.

In Shungnak, a small Northwest Arctic Borough town, all voters received both the Republican ballot and the ballot for other parties, including the Democrats. Fifty-one voters cast 102 ballots.

After hearing a week of arguments, Anchorage Superior Court judge Andrew Guidi ruled that mistakes had been made and those mistakes ─ when combined with a refusal by Shungnak election workers to receive training ─ rose to the level of deliberate “malconduct,” the standard for reversing an election.

Based on the Shungnak mistakes and errors in another precinct, Guidi subtracted 12 votes from Westlake (Shungnak was a pro-Westlake precinct) and two from Nageak. That gave Nageak a two-vote election victory.

Guidi’s word wasn’t final, however ─ both sides in the legal fight were prepared to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, which received opening briefs last weekend and prepared for oral arguments Wednesday.

A complete legal opinion from the Court was not available at 5 p.m. Wednesday, but in a minority dissent, Justice Daniel Winfree said he would have preferred a new election.

All sides faced a tight deadline: The Alaska Division of Elections needed to mail ballots to North Slope precincts by Oct. 17 to allow early voting to start on time, Oct. 24.

While the Westlake-Nageak race was distant from Juneau, it could have implications in the statehouse. Nageak, the incumbent, worked in the Republican-led majority in the House of Representatives.

Alaska Democrats have been working to dismantle that majority, and in the primary election, the Alaska Democratic Party supported Westlake financially.

By phone on Wednesday night, Westlake said the important takeaway from the Supreme Court decision isn’t its impact on the statehouse or on his race in particular. It’s that the court ruled every vote valid and every vote counted.

“It’s nice to have the highest court in Alaska reaffirm you (the voter) are absolutely, unequivocally the most important part of any election,” he said.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at 523-2258 or james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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