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The Mystery of the Missing Alaskan Votes

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by Kristin Jones, ProPublica

NASA src="http://www.propublica.org/images/articles/alaska_nasa_s.jpg"
width="275" />"There's nothing fishy going on in the state of Alaska," Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, tells us.

Since last week she has been fending off suggestions that the unusually low voter turnout and skewed poll predictions in the state signify some official wickedness or ineptitude.

While 313,592
registered voters showed up for the 2004 presidential election, early counts this year put the turnout at 224,057 >. Fenumiai notes that tens of thousands of absentee and early votes have
yet to be tallied. (States often take a week or two to finish counting absentee and provisional votes and certify elections. As of yesterday,
officials were also still tallying results in Missouri, Georgia, California, Ohio and Virginia.)

More results from those votes will be posted on Wednesday. Fenumiai expects that turnout will reach around 61 percent of registered voters by the November 19 deadline. But that’s still lower than the 66 percent of 2004.

And this, notes the Anchorage Daily News, came on the heels of huge turnout in the Republican and Democratic caucuses, a gigantic Obama-driven registration campaign, a hometown favorite on the Republican presidential ticket and an incumbent felon in the Senate race.

Adding to the mystery of the missing Alaskan voters, there was the fact that the poll predictions were wrong.

On his number-crunching blog FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver noted that three polls conducted after the conviction of Sen. Ted Stevens
(R-AK) on corruption charges placed him at a considerable disadvantage to his Democratic challenger Mark Begich. But by at least the counts so far, Stevens was ahead by nearly 3,300 votes. Likewise, Ethan Berkowitz had a sizable lead over incumbent Rep. Don Young (R-AK), who is under investigation for ties to the same oil company at the heart of the Stevens conviction. But Young won.

The numbers have left some deeply suspicious. "I'm wondering if someone stole the body and blood of this election," one writer put it on a widely linked Huffington Post piece (with plenty of exclamation points). "Where are the votes? Something stinks at the Alaska Division of Elections." 

But the Democratic Party of Alaska stops short of calling it theft.

"I don’t really buy into any of the conspiracy theories or anything like that," says Bethany Lesser, spokesperson for the state party. "But people in Alaska weren't energized the way the people in the rest of the U.S. were."

Lesser blames Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Stevens and Young for turning off independent voters that would otherwise have gone to the polls for them.

But David Dittman, whose Anchorage-based polling group Dittman Research is used by Republicans, says it was more likely the Democratic-leaning voters who stayed home. Dittman attributes the low turnout to the expectation that Begich and Berkowitz would win handily and the news coverage showing long lines.

"They believed reports of long lines and long waits, and the need to bring a book," said Dittman. "And they thought, why endure the discomfort?"

Dittman also pointed out that his final polls before the election showed Stevens closing in on Begich. "There's not much doubt that the election was closing, and Stevens was gaining fast," he told us.

Others have said that McCain’s concession speech before the closing of Alaska’s poll may have had an impact as well. (And if you’re wondering about the weather on Election Day, it was five degrees colder than usual in Anchorage.)  

So are any lawsuits in the works? The Division of Elections hasn't heard of them.

And the Democratic Party spokesperson said she was hopeful that the final results would reverse the Stevens win for Begich. She said that any challenges would wait until after the election is certified on November 25.

Cross-posted at ProPublica, America's largest investigative newsroom.