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Local Government Resource Desk


Special Election Topics


This section addresses runoff elections, initiatives, referenda, the Federal Voting Rights Act, and other common questions related to municipal elections in Alaska.

Unless otherwise stated in local ordinance, runoff elections are required if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the votes cast for a particular office.

"Initiative" is the term used to identify the process that residents of a municipality may use to adopt local laws directly, without necessarily the approval of the local governing body.

A "referendum", which is less common than an initiative, is the process by which residents vote to approve a law proposed by the governing body, repeal a law previously enacted by the governing body, or simply give non-binding advice to the governing body on a certain matter.


Runoff Election

Runoff elections are required if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the votes cast for a particular office, unless a simple majority is allowed by ordinance. This is for both designated and at-large seats. A municipality can amend their ordinance to do away with the 40 percent requirement. This runoff requirement is imposed by AS 29.26.060.

If the canvass committee determines that a certain candidate received the highest number of votes for an office, and received at least 40 percent of the number of votes cast for the office, the committee certifies the election of that candidate. However, if the candidate received the highest number but less than 40% of the votes cast for all candidates, the committee cannot certify the election of that candidate. Instead, it must order a runoff election unless an ordinance has been adopted that declares that the person with the highest number of votes is elected regardless of the percentage received of the total vote.

Example 1. The City of Cheyenne is conducting its regular municipal election. Seven candidates have filed for the three seats on the city council, which are to be filled "at large" by the voters at the election. This means that the three top vote getters will fill the three open governing body seats. When the ballots are counted, a number of votes are for a write-in candidate, John Jones. With 120 ballots cast and every voter entitled to select not more than 3 candidates for a total of 360 votes, the results are as follows:

Vote for Three
George Goodfellow
Albert Allen
Betty Burns
Frank Foster
Ethel Edwardson
John Johnes (write in)
Doris Davis
Chuck Citta
Total Votes Cast

After verifying that 360 votes were cast, the governing body applied the 40 percent requirement before certifying the results and declaring candidates elected. Forty percent of 120 is 48. Both George Goodfellow and Ethel Edwardson received more than 48 votes. At the first council meeting after the election, the council may properly certify their election. The third ranking candidate, Albert Allen, received only 47 votes. Although he leads the fourth place candidate by 12 votes, Allen has not received the required 40 percent. Unless an ordinance that would avoid a runoff election has been passed (simple majority); the council cannot certify this election. It must order a runoff election between the third and fourth place candidates, Allen and Jones (the write-in candidate), to determine which of them is to fill the seat. If the election ordinance does not require a runoff but declares the person getting the most votes the winner (simple majority), the council can certify the election of Albert Allen as well as George Goodfellow and Ethel Edwardson.

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Example 2. This time, out of 360 votes cast only one candidate gets more than 40 percent of the vote. The results are as follows: After verifying that 360 votes were cast, the governing body applies the 40 percent requirement by dividing the total by the three seats, which is 120 per seat. Forty percent of 120 is 48. George Goodfellow may be declared the only winner. No other candidate received 48 votes. The governing body must order a runoff election and there must be two runoff candidates for each unfilled seat. As two seats (of the three to be filled) are still open, the governing body must designate the four candidates with the next highest votes for a runoff election. It orders that the names of Albert Allen, Betty Burns, Frank Foster and Ethel Edwardson be entered on the runoff ballot .

Vote for Three

Vote for Three
George Goodfellow
Albert Allen
Betty Burns
Frank Foster
Ethel Edwardson
John Johnes (write in)
Doris Davis
Chuck Citta
Total Votes Cast

Municipalities may avoid the extra costs and time delays of runoff elections by passing an ordinance requiring that the candidate getting the highest number of votes for a seat is elected outright. Without such an ordinance, however, the following steps apply, which describe the process for conducting a runoff election for an office when no candidate for the office receives at least 40 percent of the votes in a regular election.

Preparing for the Runoff Election

The way the runoff election is held is similar to the regular municipal election process. However, there are five differences, as indicated in the following steps:

Step 1. Alaska Statute 29.26.060(c) provides that a runoff election must be held within three weeks after the date of certification of the election, unless otherwise provided by ordinance. Unless the local election ordinance provides for a different timeframe, the election must be held within the three-week time frame spelled out in statute.

Step 2. At the first governing body meeting following the regular municipal election, the governing body designates the names of persons that will appear on the runoff ballot. Only the names identified by the governing body appear on the runoff ballot. No votes for write-in candidates are allowed. If a person’s name appears on the ballot and he or she chooses not to serve if elected, the person can take office and resign or fail to take office and the governing body will declare the seat vacant.

Step 3. After determining who the candidates will be, the governing body specifies the date when the runoff election is to be held. AS 29.26.060(c) states “unless otherwise provided by ordinance, a runoff election shall be held within three weeks after the date of certification of the election for which a runoff is required, and notice of the runoff election shall be published at least five days before the election date.”

Step 4. Following the designation of an election date and at least five days before the runoff election, the clerk posts notice of the runoff election, with the names of the candidates who will appear on the runoff ballot listed.

Step 5. Finally, in a runoff election, no space should be left on the ballot for writing in the names of persons who are not candidates, and no write-in name should be counted. The only names to be counted are the names provided on the ballot prepared by the municipality.

Other than the differences listed above, the runoff election is like a regular election in all other ways. Ballots should be printed, judges designated, the standard voting procedures followed, and the count by the election judges performed in the same way as for the regular election. The election judges should prepare a report of preliminary election results, and the municipal clerk must make a report to the canvas committee (usually the municipal governing body) at the meeting to canvas the election. After receiving the report, the canvas committee should hear any protests and appeals, enter a decision, and certify the names of those elected at the runoff election. The final report of election results is then prepared.

Note: State statutes do not impose a 40 percent requirement on the results of a runoff election. Provided that the local election ordinance does not require that a candidate receive a percentage of the runoff votes cast, the canvass committee shall certify the candidates receiving the highest numbers of votes cast and declare the candidates elected. Also, by limiting the field to two candidates for each seat, one candidate should get at least 40 percent of the vote.

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An "initiative" is the process that residents of a municipality may use to enact ordinances or resolutions, by petition and popular vote, independent of the governing body. AS 29.26.100-.190 provides for the following initiative process:

Step 1: The petitioners submit an application for a petition to the clerk. The application must contain the ordinance or resolution to be initiated, the name and address of a contact person and alternate where correspondence regarding the petition can be sent, and the signatures of 10 or more voters. The clerk reviews the petition to ensure it is in proper form, includes only a single subject, relates to a legislative matter, and is enforceable (AS 29.26.110).

Once the clerk determines the application is acceptable, a petition shall be prepared by the municipal clerk within two weeks after the clerk has certified the application (AS 29.26.120). The petition must include:

  • a summary of the ordinance or resolution which is the subject of the petition. If there is more than one page, this summary must be included on each page;
  • the full text of the ordinance or resolution which is the subject of the petition;
  • the date on which the petition is issued by the clerk and notice that the signatures must be obtained within 90 days of the date of first circulation;
  • spaces for signers to enter their signatures and print their names, the date of signing, and their residence and mailing addresses;
  • space to record the total number of signatures; and
  • a sworn statement by the sponsor that all signatures were signed in the presence of the sponsor by the persons who the sponsor believes them to be.

The number of required signatures is at least 25 percent of the voters who voted in the last general election if your municipality has less than 7,500 residents. If your community has 7,500 or more residents, then at least 15 percent of the number of persons voting in the last regular election must sign the petition(AS 29.26.130). (Note: there is a different requirement for an Alcohol Local Option election.)

Step 2. Within 10 days of filing the signed petition, the municipal clerk must determine whether the petition has the right number of signatures (AS.29.26.140).

Step 3. If sufficient, the clerk presents the initiative petition to the governing body at the first meeting following certification. If insufficient, the petitioners must be notified immediately and they have 10 days from the time of rejection to correct the deficiencies and resubmit the petition. If the petition is still deemed insufficient the second time it is submitted, the process is ended (AS 29.26.140). A petitioner has seven days after certification to protest a sufficiency determination (AS 29.26.150). An identical petition cannot be resubmitted within six months of the date of final rejection of the original (AS.29.26.160).

Step 4. Unless the governing body enacts a law substantially similar to the one proposed, the governing body submits the proposal to the voters at the next regular election if it is scheduled no sooner than 45 days and no later than 75 days from certification. A special election is required if no regular election is scheduled within 75 days of certification (AS 29.26.170).

Step 5. If voters approve the measure, the new law becomes effective and cannot be substantially modified for two years (AS 29.26.190).

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A "referendum" is the process by which voters directly approve or disapprove of an existing or proposed law, rule, or opinion of their governing body. A governing body may proactively seek voter approval of a decision they've made by "referring" the matter to the voters for their consideration at an election. Indeed, in certain cases, such direct voter approval of decisions made by the governing body is required by State of Alaska law (see below). Voters can also take action to approve, disapprove, or amend existing laws, rules, or opinions made by their governing on their own. In these cases, private citizens complete a petition process to have their referendum question placed before the voters at an election. The petition to place a referendum question on a municipal election ballot is processed in a manner similar to an initiative petition.

There are certain subjects for which state law requires a governing body call a referendum vote on, including matters involving:

  • sales and property tax (see AS 29.45.670 and 29.45.590);
  • conflict of interest law (AS 39.50);
  • municipal manager plans of government (AS 29.20.470); and
  • general obligation bonds (AS 29.47.190).

Once the referendum petition is certified, the ordinance/resolution/matter that is the subject of the petition is suspended pending the vote. If the governing body repeals on its own an ordinance or resolution the petitioners are currently seeking repeal of through referendum, the petition is void and the matter is not brought to a vote. If a referendum vote is held and passes, the becomes effective when the election is certified (AS 29.26.180). The results of a referendum vote required by state law are binding on the governing body for two years (AS 29.26.190).

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Federal Voting Rights Act

The Federal Voting Rights Act is a federal law passed in 1965 by the U.S. Congress to end practices that prevented minority groups from voting. There are two crucial provisions of the Act that affect elections in the State of Alaska. Those are:

  • a prohibition on the use of any voting qualification, standard, practice, or procedure that results in denial or restriction of the right to vote because of membership in a racial or language minority group; and
  • a requirement for the use of appropriate languages, in addition to English, for registration and voting materials in certain jurisdictions to which single language minority criteria apply.

Changing the election district boundaries in a way that a person who represents the interests of a racial minority group cannot be elected is an example of a “voting practice” that can affect the right to vote of a racial minority. Another violation of the Act is inadequate bilingual assistance and information in the voting process. The State has taken steps to address this problem through, for example, appointment of bilingual registrars and election officials, public service announcements in Alaska Native languages, and published information that is translated by Native language speakers.

Local election officials should become familiar with the provisions of the Act regarding assistance to language minority groups (28 CFR Part 55) and implement appropriate measures for effective assistance.

The Federal Voting Rights Act previously required that the Department of Justice (DOJ) review proposed changes in voter qualifications, standards, practices, or procedures before they are put into practice. This was called 'pre-clearance'. Unless DOJ approved (“pre­cleared”) the change, the results of the election could have been thrown out and legal action could have been taken against the local government. On June 25, 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, 113 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to use the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 itself. The effect of the Shelby County decision is that the jurisdictions identified by the coverage formula in Section 4(b) no longer need to seek preclearance for the new voting changes, unless they are covered by a separate court order entered under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if the polling place is destroyed or unusable?

Call the Election Supervisor and request assistance to find another polling place. The Election Supervisor will notify the news media and others of the polling place change. If a school, public building, church or even a private home is an appropriate substitute, ask permission to set up the polls and inform the Division of Elections.

What if there are not enough official ballots or missing ballots?

Use sample ballots, ballots removed from the official election pamphlet, and sheets of paper on which the names of candidates and issues have been written. Complete the certificate on the back of the original and duplicate tally sheets regarding use of unofficial ballots.

How do we deal with a missing precinct register?

Have the voters sign their names, and print their mailing and residence addresses on a sheet of paper. If the Precinct Register arrives, place the paper containing the signatures and addresses of the voters in the back of the Register, and have the voters begin to sign in the Precinct Register.

What if the lock doesn't fit ballot box?

Use any means including taping the lid on to secure the box.

What if the key doesn't work in the ballot box lock?

Cut the lock so you may begin to count ballots.

How do we start a special election?

The governing body may, by resolution, call a special election with at least 20 day’s notice. Special elections may be called for several purposes. Among these are adopting the municipal management form of government, conducting a local option election, conducting a recall election, etc. The process follows the same procedure as outlined for general elections.

There is a tie vote, what to do?

If an election results in a tie, the governing body should order a recount of the voted ballots to confirm the tie. The election ordinance should provide the method used to decide a tie vote (for example, drawing the winner's name out of a hat or coin toss).

Additional Resources


Sample documents:

Recommended web site search topics:

  • Alaska Division of Elections
  • Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks (AAMC)
  • Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC)
  • U.S. Civil Rights Division, Voting Rights Section
  • Infobase Alaska Statutes
  • Infobase Alaska Administrative Code
  • Shelby County v. Holder, 113 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)
Applicable Laws and Regulations
  • Section 1 Age and 30-day residency requirement.
  • Section 2 Prohibitions against being allowed to vote.
  • Section 3 Methods of voting, secret ballot.
  • Section 4 Authorizes the legislature to prescribe registration procedures and establish voting precincts and election districts.

Alaska Statutes

  • AS 15.10.020 Determination of precinct boundaries.
  • AS 15.15.090 Designation of polling place.
  • AS 29.06.320 Charter provisions, election districts, nonpartisan municipal elections.
  • AS 29.10.200 Limitation on authority to enact provisions other than those provided by statute.
  • AS 29.20.380 Administration of municipal elections, compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act.
  • AS 29.26.060 Runoff election, ordinance requirement.
  • AS 29.26.010-.070 Initiative and Referendum.

Revised 9/15/2015