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Mystery ballot could sway control of Alaska state government

The Associated Press
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FILE--This July 18, 2018, file photo shows Bart LeBon, a candidate for the Alaska House District 1 seat in Fairbanks, Alaska. LeBon, a Republican, is tied with Democrat Kathryn Dodge, and the race could go to a recount on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, if officials decide to discard an absentee ballot that came in with no other supporting documentation to determine whether it was legally cast. (Eric Engman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP, file)
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FILE-This Sept. 13, 2012, file photo shows Kathryn Dodge, a candidate for the Alaska House District 1 seat in Fairbanks, Alaska. Dodge, a Democrat, is tied with Republican Bart LeBon, and the race could go to a recount on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, if officials decide to discard an absentee ballot that came in with no other supporting documentation to determine whether it was legally cast. (Sam Harrel/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP, file)

JUNEAU, Alaska — It’s a sign that every vote does count.

A single mystery ballot found on a precinct table on Election Day but not counted then could decide a tied Alaska state House race and thwart Republican efforts to control the chamber and all of state government.

The ballot arrived in Juneau last Friday in a secrecy sleeve in a bin with other ballot materials. Officials were investigating its origins and handling before deciding whether to tally it.

“People kept calling it close,” Democrat candidate Kathryn Dodge said of the race for the House seat in Fairbanks. “I just didn’t know it was going to be squeaky.”

A recount is scheduled for Friday after the race between Dodge and Republican Bart LeBon was previously certified as a tie, at 2,661 votes apiece. The uncounted ballot appears to be marked for Dodge.

The outcome will have big political implications. If LeBon wins, Republicans will control the state House in addition to the state Senate and the governor’s office.

If Dodge wins, the House would be split 20-20, between Republicans and the remnant of a coalition that is largely comprised of Democrats but includes two Republicans.

For the candidates, it’s been a three-week rollercoaster ride marked by lead changes before the tie was declared and by the appearance of the mystery ballot.

Elections director Josie Bahnke said she wants to ensure that every vote cast by an eligible voter is counted.

Dodge, a former member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, said it appears the ballot was not put through the scanner on election night. She believes it’s valid and should be counted.

LeBon, a retired banker, said he has questions about the handling of the ballot and expects a legal challenge from whoever loses the recount. He said questions about other ballots also could be raised during the recount.

An attorney for Dodge on Thursday asked Bahnke to include a ballot in the recount that had the ovals next to both candidates filled in but an “X” on the LeBon oval. The ballot wasn’t counted for either candidate, but attorney Patrick Munson said it should go toward Dodge’s total.

If the race remains tied after the recount and possible legal challenges, state law calls for a winner to be determined “by lot.” A coin toss decided a tied House race in 2006.

“I’ve come too far to have a coin toss settle this,” LeBon said.

The current House speaker, Democrat Bryce Edgmon, won the 2006 primary through the coin toss on his way to being elected to the chamber later that year.

He said he didn’t recall the race being stressful, pointing out that he also had a good job in the fishing community of Dillingham to focus on if he had lost the race.

On the day of the coin toss, he said his son fell sick and had to be taken to the emergency room, which occupied his attention much of the day.

Remembering the coin toss is exciting, he said, but the experience is “not something I would wish for anybody to go through.”

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