The Supreme Court of Alaska late Friday night unanimously overturned a lower court ruling and ordered the state's bitterly contested general election to proceed as scheduled Nov. 7.
The high court did not certify winners in the gubernatorial primary because the justices have ordered a previously untabulated 247 ballots must be counted first, but the ruling seems to assure victory to incumbent Gov. Jay S. Hammond over challenger Walter Hickel. State Sen. Chaney Croft, the Democratic primary winner, will face Hammond in an abbreviated campaign now just two weeks long.
The 5-to-0 ruling issued at 11 p.m. Friday local time, reversed a superior court finding that two weeks ago ordered a new primary election to be held because "cumulative malconduct" by election officials had biased results. At that time, Hammond led former interior secretary Hickel by 98 votes and Croft topped Democratic challenger Ed Merdes by 246. There were 106,000 votes cast.
"The isolated instances of irregularity do not so permeat the election with numerous serious violations of law as to cast substantial doubt on the outcome of the vote," the Supreme Court held.
The turnaround was a bitter one for Hickel forces, who have argued since Aug. 30 tath improper procedures in the Aug. 22 primary election robbed their candidate of victory. Early allegations from Hickel lawyers and campaign workers charged fraud and corruption in the election, but their court complaints centered instead on "malconduct" born of erros and technical violations of election statutes.
"The ruling is a great disappointment, not just for ourselves but for all those who saw in this case a test of the integrity of our system and the ability of those not in office to contest arbitrary decision-making by those in power," a Hickel campaign statement said. "Of course, we are disappointed that our candidate, Wally Hickel, will not be on the ballot . . . it is not Wally, but Alaska who loses by this decision . . ."
Hammond issued a statement, "not as a candidate, but as your governor," calling for conciliation in the wake of a dispute that has deeply divided partisans in all camps here. "It's time we came back together again as a people. We need each other. And that's more important than any political issue or any candidate," Hammond said.
The Supreme Court ordered Lt. Gov. Lowell THomas Jr. - who runs elections in Alaska - to count 247 previously untabulated ballots and make other adjustments ordered by the court before certifying winners. Those changes are given no chance of altering the Hammond-Croft victories, however.
The 247 ballots were found in an election office locker after the official counting votes had ended. An election supervisor said they were misplaced because they were stored in the wrong-colored envelopes and were not found until a post-election audit pinpointed a discrepancy.
The high court also ruled that some 97 ballots the state admits were improperly counted must be subtracted from candidates' totals on a pro-rata basis "to reflect the presumably random distribution of the ballots invalidly cast."