ACLU wants special counsel to investigate Anchorage election

The Anchorage Daily NewsApril 6, 2012 

As an internal city review of what went wrong in Tuesday's Anchorage election moves forward, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is calling for a special counsel to investigate the matter.

So far, 59 of 121 voting precincts have been reviewed by the city clerk's office and just over half, 31, ran out of the preprinted ballot cards at some point, according to the clerk's office.

A vote for mayor and a hotly contested, emotional gay rights measure were among the issues on the ballot. ACLU executive director Jeffrey Mittman sent letters to Anchorage Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander, City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein and municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler calling for "an independent, special counsel to investigate the conduct of the April 3, 2012 Municipal Election."

Ossiander said it's too early to begin an independent investigation. The city clerk and six-member Election Commission need time to do their work, she said.

Mittman was a leader in the One Anchorage campaign, the group that formed to promote the gay rights measure, and the ACLU contributed $10,000 to its effort.

Mittman said the ACLU is trying to ensure that each individual's right to vote is protected, even those who wanted to vote against Proposition 5, the gay rights ballot measure. He acknowledged the ACLU is "wearing two hats" by reviewing the election and advocating for Proposition 5. But he said it could serve both roles.

Both the city clerk's office and the ACLU are urging people who had trouble voting to come forward with complaints. The city clerk announced Thursday that people can email election2012@muni.org. The clerk asks they include their name and polling station name or number, as well as a phone number if they don't mind a call. The ACLU on Wednesday set up a hot line, 263-2015, which had received more than 100 calls by Thursday.

THOUSANDS OF QUESTIONED BALLOTS

Gruenstein said the city printed plenty of ballots, almost 143,000, but that large numbers of people crossed precinct boundaries to vote, causing some polling stations to run short when others had plenty. People still should have been able to vote on paper sample ballots, she said.

The city charter requires that enough ballots for 70 percent of the city's registered voters be printed but many are used for absentee ballots or early voting. Just over 204,800 voters were eligible for Tuesday's election.

The state prints a much higher percentage of ballots compared to the number of registered voters for the elections it runs. Gail Fenumiai, state elections director, said that for a general election, enough ballots for about 85 percent of a precinct's registered voters are delivered to the polling place.

Gruenstein has said turnout appeared extraordinarily high Tuesday, though officials still are working on a tally. The nearly 55,000 ballots already counted represent only about 27 percent of the registered voters, but thousands of absentees, early votes, paper sample ballots and questioned ballots remain to be counted and will push the turnout higher.

Under city code, people who aren't on the voter roll for a precinct can always vote a questioned ballot, which is sealed in an envelope with identifying information on the outside. The city's Election Commission determines whether the voter is qualified based on that information and decides whether to accept or reject that ballot. The commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and serve staggered terms, also reviews absentee ballots.

So far, the review has found that 3,001 questioned ballots were cast in the 59 precincts and that another 797 paper sample ballots were cast and as yet uncounted, the clerk said in a written statement.

That's a high number of questioned ballots, the clerk's office said. In last year's municipal election, without a hot button issue on the ballot, just 1,060 questioned ballots were cast in all 121 precincts, the clerk said.

'DENIAL OF RIGHT TO VOTE'

The clerk's office said Wednesday that the municipal attorney, Dennis Wheeler, is investigating the election.

But Mittman of the ACLU says that's an inappropriate role because Wheeler works directly for Mayor Dan Sullivan. On Tuesday, Sullivan easily won reelection, with more than 59 percent of the ballots counted.

Under the city charter, the Election Commission, not the municipal attorney, is responsible for investigating elections. Its role is to advise the Assembly and the clerk, who runs the elections.

If the city clerk or city attorney do their own review and find no serious problems, the public may not accept the results, Mittman said. It would be better for a retired judge or former state lawyer to be in charge, he said.

Based on the phone calls to the ACLU, "there is credible evidence of significant problems," Mittman said.

In his letter to Ossiander, he said that "confusion, irregularities in distribution of ballots, use of ad hoc ballot substitutes (such as photocopies of sample ballots), redirection of voters to one precinct after another, long lines and waits, and complete denial of the right to vote occurred in many instances."

Some election workers reported that their polling station received fewer ballots than normal, he wrote.

HEARING VOTER COMPLAINTS

Ossiander said she expects the Election Commission to analyze what happened as well as the clerk. She said she asked Wheeler to contact both the mayor and his main challenger, Paul Honeman, and make it clear he wasn't working for either one of them in his investigation.

An independent investigation "is premature," she said. She said she's heard from 25 or 30 residents about various problems with the election and that a couple have called for a new election.

All the contests on Tuesday's ballots appear to have been decided by wide margins, meaning that a new election probably isn't justified, Wheeler has said.

The commission has already begun its review of questioned and absentee ballots and plans to make final decisions on which ones to count on Wednesday. The process is open to the public.

Separate from any city review, the ACLU is investigating individual voter complaints, Mittman said. He is contacting every campaign involved in Tuesday's election to let them know. While that could be seen as a conflict, given the ACLU's work on the gay rights measure, Mittman said the organization believes it has a duty to ensure that voters on any side of an issue are not disenfranchised.

The ACLU may ultimately try to work with the city clerk's office to ensure that the problems don't happen again, he said.

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