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Becky Bohrer
Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — The race to top four vote-getters in Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat is one step closer to being decided.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is the big leader in early results with 29.8 percent of the votes out of the 48 candidates.

One of the four Alaska Native candidates is in fourth place. Democrat Mary Sattler Peltola, Yup’ik Eskimo, has 7.5 percent of the votes. Behind her is Republican Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, with 5.3 percent of the votes.

The initial results released by the state Division of Elections included 108,729 votes. It was not immediately clear how many ballots were outstanding. The division reported late Saturday that it had received about 139,000 ballots so far. Ballots had to be postmarked by Saturday.

Mary Sattler Peltola, Yup'ik, is a candidate to fill the rest of Don Young's term in the U.S. Congress. Young died in March at the age of 88. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Saturday marked the first ballot count; state elections officials plan additional counts on Wednesday and Friday, and a final count on June 21. They have targeted June 25 to certify the race.

The two other Alaska Native candidates are: Laurel Foster, Cupik, nonpartisan, with 0.2 percent votes and Emil Notti, Koyukon Athabascan, with 1.4 percent votes.

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The Associated Press has not called any winners in the special primary.

The top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to an August special election in which ranked choice voting will be used. The winner of the special election will serve the remainder of Don Young’s term, which ends in January. Young died in March at age 88.

Tara Sweeney at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2018. (Photo Jason Dixon)

This election was unlike any the state has seen, crammed with candidates and conducted primarily by mail. This was the first election, too, under a system approved by voters in 2020 that ends party primaries and uses ranked choice voting in general elections.

Earlier Saturday, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed and vacated a lower court order that had barred state election officials from certifying the results of the special primary until visually impaired voters were given a “full and fair” opportunity to participate.

Attorneys for the state had interpreted Friday's order from Superior Court Judge Una Gandbhir as preventing elections officials from concluding voting as scheduled on Saturday. They asked the supreme court to reverse the order.

The ruling came in a case filed days earlier by Robert Corbisier, executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. Corbisier sued state elections officials on behalf of a person identified as B.L., a registered voter in Anchorage with a visual impairment.

The sheer number of candidates left some voters overwhelmed, and many of the candidates themselves faced challenges in setting up a campaign on the fly and trying to leave an impression on voters in a short period of time. The candidate filing deadline was April 1.

Relatively few candidates were running for the seat before Young's death. Begich was among the early entrants; he launched his campaign last fall and worked to win support among conservatives. The businessman, who hails from a family of prominent Democrats, was endorsed by the Alaska Republican party.

Peltola, a former state lawmaker from Bethel who has been involved in fisheries issues, said that she entered the race with low name recognition but believes she's changed that and has momentum behind her candidacy.

Palin's run marks her first bid for elected office since resigning as governor partway through her term in 2009. She was endorsed in this campaign by some national political figures, including Donald Trump, who participated in a “telerally” for her and said Palin would "fight harder than anybody I can think of,” particularly on energy issues.

Palin sought to assure voters that she is serious about her bid and committed to Alaska.

During the campaign, opponents poked at that. Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2020, said Palin “quit on Alaska.” Begich and Sweeney made points of saying they are not quitters.

Gross, in an email to supporters during the campaign, said Palin and Begich are candidates who will be hard to beat but said he is “ready and able to take on this fight.”

Sweeney was assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Interior Department under Trump and was endorsed by a group that represents leaders of the state’s influential Alaska Native regional corporations.

She said she understands the “pressure cooker” environment of Washington.

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ICT contributed to this report