Alaska's Assembly gets earful of election complaints

April 11, 2012 

Concerns about voters being turned away from the polls in the April 3 municipal election erupted Tuesday at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska last week called for the Assembly to hire a special counsel to investigate what went wrong and determine, perhaps through a survey of registered voters, how many were turned away or disenfranchised by widespread ballot shortages. On Tuesday, the ACLU released sworn statements from voters and poll workers about ballot shortages and confusion at the polls.

At Tuesday's meeting, Elvi Gray-Jackson introduced a measure to hire an independent special counsel, and said the time to act was now. While Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler is evaluating the election, he works for the mayor, not the Assembly, which is responsible for election oversight. No municipal attorney could be expected to do that, she said.

"We need to have legal assessment on this issue that is fair," Gray-Jackson said.

But her proposal failed 7-4. Some Assembly members who voted "no" said they liked the idea but wanted more information first to better direct the investigation.

Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander announced the Assembly would have a work session on the election Friday and would hear from the city clerk as well as the six-person Election Commission.

The clerk's office, which runs the elections, has said that 53 of 121 precincts at least temporarily ran short on ballots, based on a preliminary review. The shortages frustrated voters who drove from polling place to polling place in search of a way to choose their mayor and pick sides in the fractious gay rights debate.

One Assembly member said during a break that the election irregularities may have been severe enough to justify a redo.

"That's my gut feeling," said Harriet Drummond, who chairs the Assembly elections and ethics committee. She said she's also heard of problems with improperly addressed absentee ballots as well as the ballot shortage. In addition, many long-term poll workers resigned when the city hired a contractor to handle their pay. They didn't like being asked to fill out a lot of paperwork and were being paid on plastic cards, which didn't sit well with some of the older workers, Drummond said.

"There's so many errors. There's no way to fix a specific point of blame at this point in time until we have answers to all these questions," Drummond said.

A number of upset voters showed up at the meeting. Some clapped when ACLU executive director Jeff Mittman explained his group's concerns.

WHERE WERE THE BALLOTS?

One of the ACLU-solicited sworn statements came from Collin Smith, a polling place chairman in East Anchorage. By 6:30 p.m. on Election Day, he was out of ballots. He'd started the day with too few, he said, and called three times for more.

No luck. When no additional ballots arrived, Smith said he temporarily closed the East Anchorage United Methodist ballot box and was told to shoo voters to another precinct.

"Overall, voters were very upset and yelled at me for not having adequate ballots," Smith wrote in his affidavit distributed Tuesday by the ACLU.

Other polling places closed early, too. Some poll managers turned to sample ballots. Some directed voters to the airport or the university. There was no citywide fallback plan, according to the ACLU.

The Election Commission is expected to announce the number of eligible absentee and questioned ballots that remained to be counted, with the count beginning Friday.

At stake in the election was the mayor's job, three school board seats and a controversial gay rights proposition.

"We never ran out of ballots; they were just in the wrong spot," said City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein, who oversees elections. The city printed enough ballots for a 70 percent voter turnout, she said.

That should have been enough for more than 140,000 people to cast their votes.

But high turnout and an unusually large number of people voting questioned ballots outside their normal precincts caught election officials by surprise. Many ballots -- Gruenstein couldn't say how many in a short phone interview Tuesday -- were stored at City Hall even as various precincts ran short.

"In retrospect, with the turnout that we had and this crazy cross-voting business, yeah, we should have had more out there," Gruenstein said.

The decision about how many ballots to send to each precinct is made within the clerk's office and is based on historical trends and other data, she said. She declined to say exactly who made that decision for the April 3 election.

The majority of those votes have already been counted. About 54,000 ballots cast in the Proposition 5 and mayoral race were tallied Tuesday, with each of the hottest hot-button issues decided by apparent blowouts.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan captured 59 percent of the vote to defeat challenger Paul Honeman, according to the unofficial results. Voters rejected Prop. 5, a proposed ordinance to add legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people, by a margin of 58 to 42 percent, or 9,000 votes, the early figures say.

The number of disenfranchised voters on Election Day would have had to stretch into the thousands to reverse the outcome of any of the major contests.

But with potentially 13,000 more ballots to be counted, according to the clerk's office, the ACLU says it's too early to dismiss the ballot shortages as having no impact on the election outcome.

"If it were to turn out that every single ballot question had a 30,000-vote differential, I think at that point it would be appropriate to say, 'We can certify this election.' I don't think 30,000 voters were disenfranchised," Mittman said.

"But to start guessing, especially without anybody doing the important work of determining how many voters were disenfranchised, is highly problematic," he said.

Along with an affidavit from a poll chairman describing his precinct running short on ballots, the ACLU produced affidavits from an FAA employee who drove home without voting after being turned away from polling places as well as a teacher who says she was forced to vote using a sample ballot that she tucked into a cardboard box.

ACLU officials asked people who experienced Election Day troubles to call them with their stories. As of noon Tuesday, 139 people had phoned the organization and 19 others had complained by email. It's unclear how many of those people were unable to vote as opposed to describing other election troubles.

Among the most common complaints among the callers, according to the ACLU of Alaska: Precincts ran out of ballots; voters were asked to cast a questioned ballot even though they were registered to vote at the precinct; and voters were asked to cast their ballot using sample ballots or photo-copied ballots.

The city has been hearing from angry voters too.

What does the clerk say to people upset that they were unable to cast their vote on Election Day?

"I apologize. It's not a nice thing not to be able to vote," Gruenstein said.

Complicating the Election Day confusion was an email sent to a couple thousand people telling them that they could register to vote and vote on the same day. That's not true. The message, from Alaska Family Council president Jim Minnery, also appeared on Facebook. Minnery led a group called "Protect Your Rights -- Vote No on Prop. 5."

The ACLU, meantime, supported the effort to pass Proposition 5, donating $10,000 to a group that formed to promote the gay rights measure. Mittman, the Alaska ACLU director, personally donated another $670, Alaska Public Offices Commission records show.

"What the ACLU is calling for is an independent, impartial investigation," Mittman said. It should be led by someone such as a retired supreme court justice, a former superior court judge or a former attorney general. "(Someone) who does not have a dog in the fight."

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