Close elections? We're used to 'em

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

The vote count is too close to call. Recounts begin. Courts are petitioned to review the tally. Candidates huddle with advisors and sweat it out.

Sound familiar? It should if you're an Alaskan.

In a land of tall mountains and deep valleys, it should be no surprise there's lots of cliff-hangers. We've had as many close elections as Al Gore has reasons to protest the presidential vote count in Florida.

"Florida is just a typical Alaska election," said Marc Hellenthal, an Anchorage pollster.

As a state, it goes back to our first election, the 1958 race for U.S. Senate between Democrat Ernest Gruening and Republican Mike Stepovich. The final count almost evenly split the 50,000 or so ballots, leaving Gruening a margin of victory of just about half a percent. And it goes on and on, from the '74 race for governor to both of Tony Knowles' victories in the Anchorage mayor's contest to the '98 battle for an Interior House district.

"We've had eight elections decided by less than one-half of one percent for governor or mayor of Anchorage since 1970," said David Dittman, an Anchorage pollster and campaign consultant. "A landslide is anything more than 300 votes."

A pair of the closest battles came in the '70s and involved Jay Hammond, a moderate Republican Bush pilot, fisherman and guide.

Hammond took on popular incumbent Gov. Bill Egan in '74. With Joe Vogler complicating the mix with a third-party campaign, the day-after-the-election total split was 0.23 percent, a paltry 221 ballots out of the 95,723 cast.

The headlines, mixed in with the day's other news, were something Bush or Gore could relate to.

As E. Howard Hunt testified about Watergate break-in payoffs, Juneau read, "Hammond leads, outcome uncertain."

Ads celebrating the opening of the Nugget Department Store were sandwiched between "Governor race heads to court" and "Hand count begins." And, as residents read how the Pioneer II spacecraft raced toward Jupiter, the final outcome came: "Hammond sworn in; Egan leaves mansion." The final margin of victory? Some 287 ballots, or about 0.3 percent of the total vote.

Hammond, described in one report as a "poet conservationist," had an even tighter race four years later in a primary battle against Wally Hickel and several other candidates.

The day after the election, Hickel registered a 565-vote lead, but the closeness of the count and allegations of irregularities led to a re-examination of the ballots. The recount, finished about three weeks later, put Hammond ahead by less than half his '74 general election win.

The Democratic primary that year was also tight. Chancy Croft and Ed Merdes were separated by only 30 votes in the day-after total. The recount widened the gap, in favor of Croft, to a whole 260 ballots.

Hammond went on to win the general election by a comfortable margin, but not before he and Croft were challenged in court.

Numerous other tight races followed.

Among them: Knowles won a pair of Anchorage mayoral races and his first successful governor's race by tiny margins he jokingly nicknamed "Knowles landslides." Republican Carl Morgan of Aniak beat incumbent Democrat Irene Nicholia of Tanana in a 1998 Bush House race by six votes. A recount was held after the two tied. The same election gave Republican John Harris of Valdez a House seat by nine votes over Democrat Tom Van Brocklin of Cordova.

"I've never heard of any place that has as many close elections as we do," Dittman said.

The reasons are many.

One is that some legislative districts, such as the ones Morgan and Harris represent, cover many very different communities separated by hundreds of miles. Another one is our frequent third-, fourth- and fifth-party candidates, who split up the vote.

Dittman said another factor is Alaska's large transient population, with about 30 percent of the voters recently arrived or on their way out.

And Hellenthal said it's due in part to our relatively small number of residents.

"We're unusual simply because of our population base," he said. "A one percent difference in Alaska could be 20 or 30 people, while a 1 percent difference in New York or California is a gigantic number of people."

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

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