Clerk calls for independent review of Anchorage election

Assembly members seek answers to how ballot shortages occurred.

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 13, 2012 

Anchorage Assembly members spent two hours Friday grilling the city clerk who oversees local elections, her lieutenant and other city officials in hopes of learning how the April 3 election went so awry.

About 40 percent of Anchorage precincts reported temporary ballot shortages on Election Day, City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein has said.

The problems spurred the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, some Assembly members and now signers of a new petition to call for the city to hire an independent investigator to review the election. On Friday, Gruenstein said she wants an outside inquiry as well.

"I have every confidence in the ability of the municipal attorney and this office to conduct an impartial investigation," Gruenstein wrote in a letter to the Assembly. "However the public has been exposed to a mix of fact, rumor and speculation regarding the election, and an independent investigation will provide analysis to the public and this body."

Indeed, there's no shortage of questions about the citywide vote. Satisfying answers, however, have been hard to come by.

Assembly members peppered the clerk, Deputy Clerk Jacqueline Duke, members of the city Election Commission and the city lawyer with queries in front of a crowd of about 60 people. It was a sometimes snappish exchange.

Among the questions: If the city printed more than enough ballots to meet demand, why were there shortages? Why have some workers complained of delays in receiving extra ballots from City Hall? How many people tried to register to vote the day of the election, an act that's not allowed but was encouraged by an opponent of a controversial gay rights proposal?

Eagle River Assemblyman Bill Starr asked about the city's election planning. Did Gruenstein talk to the staff about the possibility of Proposition 5, the fractious gay rights question, jolting voter turnout?

Gruenstein said she had discussions with her staff but wasn't involved in "granular" decisions about how many ballots were sent to each precinct. The number of ballots sent to precincts was based on historical voting trends, she said.

"I knew it was going to be high (turnout). I did not get into the level of detail that, in hindsight, I wish I had," Gruenstein said.

As for delays in driving ballots to precincts where supplies ran dry, the rush-hour timing was a problem, members of the clerks office said.

All told, about 64,000 unused ballots were left over after the election, the clerk said. Of those, about 53,000 had been at City Hall on Election Day, according to the city.

Along with finding out how to avoid similar problems in the future, one of the biggest questions of all has been just how many voters were unable to cast a ballot. Election Commissioner Gwen Mathew said the eight-member group has not been seeking to answer that question but is focusing on determining how many questioned and absentee ballots are eligible to be counted next week.

So far, only 17 people have told the city in emails or phone calls that they tried to vote but were unable to, City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said.

More than 1,800 unscanned ballots -- meaning legitimate votes that were cast on sample ballots, the wrong type of ballot card or even photocopies because of shortages -- were counted Thursday.

Thousands more ballots remain to be tallied, a process that is expected to begin Tuesday.

Among the remaining votes, according to Duke, the deputy clerk:

• More than 5,200 questioned ballots. That doesn't include close to 600 that have already been determined ineligible by the Election Commission.

• More than 2,100 absentee by mail ballots.

• More than 5,600 absentee-in-person (early voting) ballots.

As the meeting closed, West Anchorage Assemblyman Ernie Hall described a "heart-wrenching" effort by election workers to find enough ballots to go around on Election Day.

"You needed better support, and we failed you," Hall said. "We have a great deal of rebuilding to do, and we intend to do it."

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