Anchorage voters reject sexual orientation initiative

The Anchorage Daily NewsApril 4, 2012 

Anchorage voters rejected a proposed ordinance to add legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people in a chaotic municipal election fraught with ballot shortages and high voter turnout in many precincts.

With more than 90 percent of the precincts reporting late Tuesday, 58 percent of voters had voted against Proposition 5, the equal rights ordinance that was far and away the most controversial and emotional component of this spring's election.

As of late Tuesday, neither side was claiming victory nor conceding defeat.

The main group opposing the measure was silent, and its leader did not appear at Election Central at the Dena'ina Center or issue any kind of written statement.

Trevor Storrs, spokesman for the One Anchorage campaign, which advocated for passage of the measure, said it was too early to judge anything.

"We have complete faith in the electoral process, and the clerk's office needs to be the one to evaluate the situation," Storrs said. That would be his only comment, he said, because "we don't want to make any assumptions or put out any mistruths."

"We're proud of a big turnout," he said.

An unexpectedly high turnout, with some polling places running out of ballots, resulted in a large number of votes that might be on "questioned" ballots, which have to be counted by hand. The final results may be days or longer away, said municipal clerk Barbara Gruenstein.

Reports began circulating late in the day Tuesday that some precincts were running out of ballots because of heavy turnout. By 7 p.m. -- an hour before polls were to close -- lines were long at many polling places and extra ballots were being rushed to precincts that had run out

Jim Minnery, the leader of Vote No On Prop. 5, said that he had sent out an alert email and Facebook message saying, incorrectly, that people could register and vote on election day. The information was wrong and a miscommunication with a clerk's office worker, he said. It wasn't immediately clear how much of an effect that had on the turnout.

Polling places reported going through all of their ballots and then the back-up sample ballots provided as a ''Plan B.''

Officials at one Eagle River precinct even moved on to ''Plan C'' by photocopying sample ballots on Alpenglow Elementary School office copier.

Some said they watched people give up and leave before replacement ballots, which officials said would have to be counted manually and would be considered "questioned ballots," were delivered.

Minnery did not respond to repeated phone calls Tuesday night.

Prop. 5 was the third attempt by advocates here to outlaw discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people since the city's charter took effect in 1975, but Tuesday was the first time the issue had been voted on in a municipal election, according to supporters from the One Anchorage campaign. The Anchorage Equal Rights Ordinance would have amended Anchorage's Title 5 non-discrimination code. The effort to pass it started in December 2011 when the One Anchorage campaign collected the signatures of 13,515 registered voters to place the initiative on the ballot.

The group was co-chaired by former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and former Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski.

The citizen-led ballot effort came after a similar ordinance passed the Anchorage Assembly in 2009 but was then vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, who said he didn't believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was a problem in the city.

Sullivan has since said he believes a ballot initiative is an appropriate approach because it allows citizens to weigh in on the initiative directly.

A direct-to-ballot approach is an unusual route to anti-discrimination legislation on the municipal level, said Tony Wagner of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.

"I don't know of any other municipality that has gone proactively to the ballot" for a non-discrimination ordinance, he said.

Alaska is one of 14 states with no protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Wagner said. Others include Wyoming, Idaho, Mississippi and Alabama, he said.

The One Anchorage campaign argued that legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender residents were overdue and instances of discrimination demonstrated a need for the law.

The campaign ran commercials using a variety of Anchorage residents supporting the measure, as well as one ad that made history by being the first in the country to feature an openly transgender person, the campaign said.

A group of clergy supporting the ordinance, Christians for Equality, was a key part of organizing efforts, campaign spokesman Trevor Storrs said.

Opponents, campaigning as Vote No On Prop. 5, complained that the law was vague and poorly written and would impinge on the religious freedom of residents opposed to homosexuality. The proposition included an exemption from the law for churches and religious organizations.

The Vote No group built its advertising campaigns on cartoon scenarios it said could happen if the law passed. The One Anchorage campaign decried the ads' portrayal of transgender people as demeaning.

The Vote No On Prop. 5 group also included a number of the city's most prominent clergymen arguing against the proposition. The campaign sponsored a "pastor's briefing" and encouraged church leaders to talk to their congregations about it, Minnery said.

Over the course of the campaign, One Anchorage raised about $350,000, while Vote No raised about $95,000, according to documents filed this week with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

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