Ballot shortfall investigated in 1989 city election (10/5/89)

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 10, 2012 

This article was published in the Anchorage Daily News on Oct. 5, 1989

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As Municipal Clerk Ruby Veldkamp was defending her role in the ballot shortfall in Tuesday's election, an Anchorage assemblyman was attempting to put together a dossier of errors that could lead to a challenge of poll results.

Veldkamp, the city's chief election official for the past nine years, attributed her failure to order enough ballots for the municipal election to a desire to avoid waste.

Veldkamp said in an interview Wednesday that her initial judgment, made in August, was sound when she calculated that about 60,000 ballots were needed slightly more than one ballot for every two registered voters. She said she would continue to rely on the same method for estimating voter turnout in the future.

TX: More than half of the city's 91 precincts ran out of computer ballots Tuesday, forcing election officials to resort to sample ballots and photocopied ballots as backups. The resulting confusion and delays caused long lines and left voters waiting as long as three hours in some polling places. Voters at Abbott Loop Elementary School, Precinct 88, said they were turned away before they could vote.

"If people left, that was of their own accord, " Veldkamp said.

But Assemblyman John Wood, just before he was to appear on a radio talk show Wednesday, said he would ask people who thought they may have been denied the right to vote to come forward.

"What I'm trying to do is get the facts as to what actually took place, " said Wood, a lawyer. "We're trying to get actual names, trying to bring them out of woodwork tonight."

If it turns out that voters were disenfranchised, Wood said the appropriate remedy might be to hold the election over, or at least to require a second election on propositions, like the tobacco tax, that were decided by narrow margins.

Municipal Attorney Richard Kibby said he planned to interview any person who claimed to have been denied the right to vote as well as the officials who worked at those precincts. Until he gets more information, he said, he couldn't say what his next step would be.

The use of substitute ballots has delayed final results in the election. Veldkamp said it might be Friday before the five cartons of paper ballots are unsealed and counted. Until that is done, she said, she had no way of knowing how many paper ballots were cast throughout the city.

Veldkamp, who reports to the Anchorage Assembly and not Mayor Tom Fink, said she ordered ballots based on a review of the number of voters who showed up for assembly races in 1988. She said she had no particular formula.

"It's by guess and by gum, " she said.

Asked if she would do it differently next year, she replied, "Absolutely not."

Her guesses have generally been accurate in the past, she said. While there have been occasional shortages before, this is the first time since she became clerk in 1980 that such widespread problems occurred.

When she placed her order with the California firm that supplies blank computer cards to a local printer under contract with the city, she had no idea that the ballot question on the ATU sale would generate so much interest, she said.

"I don't feel there was a mistake made, " she said. "I feel it was unpredictable."

But assembly members indicated they may order a change in her methods. While Assemblywoman Heather Flynn defended Veldkamp's actions in the face of an "unbelievable" turnout of 43 percent 1.5 times the average for an assembly election she acknowledged that the clerk may have been too "conservative."

Wood said the city should buy a ballot for each registered voter.

Assemblyman Larry Baker agreed. "That approach would solve the problem. It would be more costly, but on the other hand, to have people disenfranchised is just inappropriate."

With the exception of the tobacco tax proposition, which appeared to have passed by a narrow margin, none of the other election results should be in doubt because of problems associated with the ballot shortage, Baker said.

The chairman of the assembly, Bill Faulkner, also suggested that more ballots be obtained in the future.

"At least, we ought to take the maximum number that ever voted in any election and add in a contingency, " he said. He said it was inappropriate to criticize Veldkamp, who did the best she could.

"Ruby is the professional in this thing. She's seen elections come and go. She did a good yeoman's effort to guide us through the problems yesterday. I trust her judgment and professionalism and integrity."

"We'll all learn from this little exercise, " Faulkner said.

The law has no specific demand for ballot printing, except to require that "an adequate" supply of computer or paper ballots be made available.

To avoid any problems, state officials say it is their policy to print one ballot for each registered voter in state elections.

"We know we have a tremendous waste factor, but traditionally our turnout is relatively high, " said Linda Edgeworth, spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Elections. "It's not unusual for 65 percent, 70 percent of the voters to turn out. There's a waste factor of 30 percent even when there's a good turnout."

In 1988, she said, the state paid $182,800 to print general election ballots for 277,000 registered voters.

The bill for printing the city's 1989 ballots at Ken Wrays Printing was about $22,000, city officials said. They didn't know how much the blank cards cost because the invoice hadn't come in yet.

Bill Amundson, vice president at Ken Wrays, said increasing the press run would add "a very small percentage" to the city's bill, though precise numbers would be hard to calculate.

But money wasn't a factor in her decision, Veldkamp said.

"It's not a matter of economy, " she said. "Why order 30,000 ballots that you're only going to have to shred? It makes no sense to me."

The law in some states requires election officials to do what Alaska's election division does voluntarily, said Richard Smolka, publisher of a Washington based biweekly newsletter for election administrators.

"This obviously is a very costly thing, " he said. "When there isn't a legal requirement, some estimate will be made based on the past. They'll generally be as generous as possible because it's cheaper to print more ballots than run out."

When they do run out, it's a generally accepted practice to use sample ballots in the manner adopted by Anchorage, Smolka said. If proper accounting procedures are used, paper ballots can be as secure as computer ballots, he said.

Richard Scammon, director of the Election Research Center in Washington, D.C., agreed, but added that irregularities might make the election more prone to a challenge if they interfered with the normal conduct of the election.

Scammon, who has observed elections all over the world, said it's been fairly common for election officials to order enough computer ballots for 80 percent of the registered voters in an election.

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