Alaska’s elections head reflects on significant career, acknowledges issues with rural votes
Gail Fenumiai finishes work after having overseen six election cycles under public scrutiny
Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai looks at a screen showing a ballot for adjudication during the House District 15 recount on Dec. 8 in Juneau. Fenumiai's last day of work before retiring is Dec. 9. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)
On her last day as director of the Alaska Division of Ds on Friday, Gail Fenumiai walked into her office in downtown Juneau and found about a hundred balloons everywhere – covering the floor, all the surfaces and chairs. Her whiteboard said, “It’s the final countdown” with the no. 1 underneath.
“I’m feeling a sense of relief that the 2022 elections are pretty much closed out, and feel proud of the staff here and feel like we did good,” Fenumiai said about her last day of work.
Having overseen elections in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2020 and 2022 as elections director, Fenumiai is retiring at age 60. She started considering retirement in September and filed paperwork in October. She didn’t announce it publicly until after the November election.
Fenumiai’s career with Elections started in 1988 when she was 26. She was working in Lt. Gov. Steve McAlpine’s office before she first joined the division as election coordinator. After a year and a half, she left to raise a family and did some temp work for the division before returning in 1995. She worked in various positions.
“I’ve done pretty much everything. I’ve done the absentee program. I’ve done petitions. I’ve done candidacy filings,” she said.
She left Elections again in 2004 to work in the governor’s office, but returned in 2008 to become the division director under Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. She remained director until mid-2015, when Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott asked Fenumiai to leave and replaced her with Nome City Manager Josephine Bahnke. When Fenumiai left, she took an early retirement.
“Then I got another call in 2018 asking if I would be interested. And I said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ And then I did interview again and they selected me to come back, so I’ve been back here,” she said.
‘Not a lot of breathing room’
The past couple of years have been challenging, Fenumiai said, especially this past year. “There definitely was not a lot of breathing room,” she said.
After a couple years in pandemic mode, which was itself challenging, the division had to quickly pull together a by-mail statewide special primary election due to the death of Congressman Don Young in March.
Fenumiai recalled when she first heard the news of Young’s death: “I got a call and I went, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrible.’ And then I went, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ That’s when the alarm started going off that we need to look at calendars and figure out what does this really mean? I thought it meant a special primary.”
The Division of Elections held a special primary election in June that had an unprecedented field of 48 registered candidates.
On top of that, there was redistricting and implementing ranked choice voting – “a lot of big changes for the voters to be used to.”
“Explaining ranked choice voting was a big change, I think, for the division,” she said. “Trying to educate them on what the new ballot’s going to look like, how to properly mark your ballot. And I’m really proud of the work the division did in that regard.”
Following the special election in June, the state has its first ranked choice election in August to decide who finishes Young’s term. On the same ballot, voters also decided in a pick-one primary. Then, there was the general election in November, which resulted in two recounts.
In Alaska’s Nov. 8 general election, ranked choice voting results weren’t tabulated until Nov. 23. The division also takes its time counting absentee ballots.
Fenumiai said absentee ballots go through a significant review process, which impacts the pace of counting. “It’s not like they come in and they’re immediately able to be counted,” she said.
Once absentee ballots are returned to the division, staff log them in, review them, and give them a count code, she said. Then the absentee review board reviews them all and double-checks the work. Fenumiai said it’s better to process them in bigger chunks versus each time ballots are received.
As for ranked choice voting, “being that it was our first year ever doing this, we really thought we should wait and just do it at the end of the absentee ballot and question ballot counting, and then again at the end of certification,” she said.
Ranked choice voting results being released sooner or in more frequency may have resulted in candidates moving back and forth between winning and losing, “and trying to explain every time what happened, I think, would have been very difficult for voters to understand,” Fenumiai said.
“Fast doesn’t always make it better, so there’s something to be said for making sure you’re thorough. And it may not be as quick as candidates like, but I feel that to make sure that we have all our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed, this has worked the best for the division,” Fenumiai said.
Challenges of the job
Fenumiai said being election director always felt like the right job for her and she “developed this very deep passion for it.” She gave a lot of credit to her “top notch” coworkers.
“We’re helping people vote,” she said. “I just love the work.”
That’s despite the challenges of running elections in Alaska, like the lack of a road system in such a geographically large state with 401 precincts and about 2,500 workers and staff, many temporary workers.
“The biggest challenge is you can’t just get in a car and go to a precinct if they run out of ballots in a lot of places. We have to rely heavily on the post office. We have weather issues. We have storms. I think the division has been very fortunate to never have any big catastrophe and not be able to pull off an election,” Fenumiai said.
Unfortunately, she said, there have been times when precincts haven’t opened. Like this past August. A substantial number of voters in rural communities have been disenfranchised this past year.
In the June by-mail special primary, a disproportionately large number of ballots from rural Alaska were rejected. Two polling places failed to open as planned in August. This past Election Day, two rural polling places opened late.
“The day before Election Day, the division has confirmation that we have workers in every single community. On the morning of Election Day, if they don’t call and check in, we reach out to them. Sometimes it’s very hard to reach places. Sometimes there’s phone issues. So, unfortunately, it’s a communication issue as well. I mean, it’s not anything we want to see happen,” she said.
After the August election, seven villages’ ballots failed to reach elections officials in time to be counted in the ranked choice portion of the special election. And ballots from six rural Alaska villages were not fully counted in the recent general election. The division received ballots from two of those precincts Thursday; ballots from the other four still haven’t arrived.
“Every day we were following up, ‘Where are these at? Where are these at?’ And the workers say they put them in the mail. The post office did a check of their places and there’s nothing there. So it’s like they fall into this black hole and then all of a sudden they just appear again,” she said.
Fenumiai said she doesn’t feel good when these things happen.
“When people have voted and we don’t get their stuff back from that precinct, that’s really hard because it’s not the voters’ fault. And it’s really hard to pinpoint where was the disconnect?” she said.
Words of wisdom
Fenumiai offered some words of wisdom for the next director. “You have to keep partisan stuff out of this business. I’ve never been a partisan person, so that was very easy for me,” she said.
Other advice: Don’t assume you’re right, listen to your team, “don’t veer from statute,” and be open and transparent – “Don’t be afraid to answer the hard questions.”
Finally: “Remember you’re the one responsible. The buck stops at you, so if there’s a mistake, own up to it. Figure out how it’s not going to happen the next time.”
As Fenumiai checked her phone, she looked at text messages, some from family members, and she started to tear up.
“I don’t know what it’s going to feel like not coming to work,” she’d said earlier.
Fenumiai and her husband leave on a one-week trip to Costa Rica Saturday, “and I think when we get back that’s when it may hit me.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the year Fenumiai returned to the division, 1995, and the lieutenant governor in 2008, Sean Parnell.
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