Report blames city ballot woes on inexperience and neglect

Municipal election problems fall largely at the feet of city clerk's office, review says.

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 2, 2012 

The Anchorage city clerk's office relied on an inexperienced deputy to run the trouble-plagued April 3 election, didn't send enough ballots to polling places and failed to realize the depth of the problem as inevitable shortages began, a new report says.

Released Monday, the review by independent investigator Dan Hensley spreads blame for the chaotic election among the outgoing city clerk, the now-fired deputy clerk who handled Election Day details and Assembly members who were not aware of the potential problems. Voter outcry over ballot shortages at more than half of Anchorage precincts spurred the review.

"He hit it dead on. I think all of us became complacent over the years," Assembly chairman Ernie Hall said of the findings.

The Anchorage Assembly voted May 8 to pay Hensley, a retired Superior Court judge, up to $35,000 to conduct a month-long investigation. Hensley said he found no evidence of intent by any city or election workers to sway the election or influence voting results.

Instead, the report describes a combination of inexperience, hands-off management and short-sighted planning that left printed ballots unused at City Hall even as Anchorage residents scrambled from precinct to precinct looking for a place to vote.

"In sum I encourage changes in the Municipal Clerk's Office and Assembly practices so that election duties attain the level of focus and importance they deserve," Hensley wrote. He recommended additional election training for city employees and poll workers, a review of election training guides and more formalized Assembly oversight of the clerk's office.

Reporting to Hall, Hensley said he reviewed hundreds of pages of records and interviewed or reviewed prior interviews of more than 60 election workers, city employees and others.

Hensley was unable to determine just how many people the ballot shortfalls prevented from voting. He said poor planning for the election should not be blamed on a lack of staff in the clerk's office.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which called for an independent probe two days after the election, was reviewing the report Monday. The group has a public records request for absentee ballots and questioned ballots, as well as for copies of internal city communications about the voting process, pending before the city, said executive directory Jeffrey Mittman.

"Elections have to be done fairly. You can't have a functional democracy without 100-percent confidence from the electorate that their vote counts and is counted," he said.

'DID NOT HAVE THE EXPERIENCE'

Among the investigation's findings:

• With a mayoral race and a divisive gay rights measure on the ballot, the April 3 election drew a higher-than usual turnout of more than 35 percent. But the city employee responsible for deciding the number of ballots sent to polling places, deputy city clerk Jacqueline Duke, based projections on her limited experience in two low-turnout elections in 2010 and 2011.

"She did not have the experience or foresight to recognize that this election would bring a high turnout and did not have the institutional knowledge to look back to primary mayor election years for guidance," Hensley wrote.

As a result, too few ballots were sent to precincts for Election Day even though more than enough ballots had been printed. For example: In more than 50 precincts, the number of ballots delivered was lower than the number of people who voted in the 2006 election, Hensley wrote.

The deputy clerk did give some consideration to voter turnout in the 2009 mayoral election, the report said.

Hall fired Duke on May 9. "I did the best I could based on my experience," Duke told the investigator, according to the report.

She could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

• City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein, Duke's supervisor, took a "hands-off" approach to managing the election and delegated election details and other important Assembly business to Duke. Gruenstein did not have "a working knowledge of the details involved in preparing for an election and had not participated in an meaningful way in election planning or execution in several years," Hensley wrote.

For her part, Duke did not seek supervision, input or collaboration with other city staffers, the report said.

Gruenstein announced on May 22 she would resign from the clerk's office. The Assembly named Barbara Jones, previously tasked with rebuilding the inefficient Anchorage ombudsman's office, as her replacement.

Jones, the new city clerk, started the job on Monday.

She said in an interview that she is reviewing all job duties for clerk's office employees this month and may talk about specific ideas for improving election planning later in the summer.

• The six-person clerk's office absorbed the work of three legislative budget and finance jobs in 2005. In 2009, Gruenstein did not replace a retiring election coordinator, according to the report.

Still, Hensley wrote he does not believe staffing shortages contributed to the election problem. If the city clerk becomes more involved in managing the election, there is no need to hire an additional employee solely to be an election coordinator, he concluded.

Staff shortages on Election Day were due partly to the decision to hire just one, instead of two, temporary election assistants, Hensley wrote.

In 2012, Duke "did not give the election the same focus and attention as in the two earlier years," the report said.

After two relatively low-turnout elections, Duke believed she had enough experience to handle this year's planning duties without involving the rest of the city clerk's staff, she told the investigator.

"One former employee recalled the deputy saying that managing elections was a simple task and did not require much expertise or experience," the report says.

Meanwhile, Gruenstein was unaware of changes in the deputy clerk's handling of elections, Hensley wrote.

• The city training manual for election workers did not tell poll workers what to do when they ran out of ballots.

• An email from Alaska Family Council president Jim Minnery that incorrectly told followers they could register at the polls and vote on the same day likely caused no more than 250 additional requests for ballots, Hensley wrote. That may have worsened the ballot shortage, but was not a primary cause for the lack of ballots.

BETTER TRAINING RECOMMENDED

Precinct workers began to call City Hall or election trouble shooters by 2 p.m. on Election Day, reporting looming ballot shortages. Most received additional ballots, but the clerk's office was slow to recognize ballot supplies were running dry across the city, the report said.

"This lack of foresight proved fatal to the rest of the day," Hensley wrote.

The shortages worsened in the late afternoon. By that time, a combination of rush-hour traffic and voters swarming polling places as they left work made it even more difficult to meet demand.

Training guides for poll workers did not tell employees what to do when they ran out of ballots. Some precinct workers gave voters sample ballots or borrowed from other precincts, but by the end of the day 65 of 121 precincts had temporarily ran out of ballots, Hensley wrote.

The investigator's report listed a half-dozen suggestions for avoiding similar election woes in the future. Those include more hands-on management by the city clerk, a review of election training materials and election training for clerk's office employees.

That training should include observing how elections work in other cities, Hensley wrote.

The training manual for poll workers also should be updated to instruct people on how to handle ballot shortages, he wrote, while the clerk's office should store extra ballots at hubs around the city to help troubleshooters plug shortages.

Finally, the Assembly should consider creating a formal process for evaluating the performance of the clerk's office that serves the city's legislative branch, Hensley wrote.

Hall, the Assembly chairman, said he supports creating guidelines under city election rules for how ballots are distributed to precincts. He called for once again designating an "election coordinator" among clerk's office employees. Hall said he didn't know if that would require hiring an additional worker or redistributing duties among current employees.

"I basically have no argument with any of the findings that (the report) came up with. I thought he did a thorough job," Hall said.


Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email khopkins@adn.com.

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