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Counting Anchorage election ballots could yield bubble trouble

Suzanna Caldwell
Anchorage assembly write-in candidate Nick Moe. April 5, 2013 Loren Holmes photo

Voters in a West Anchorage assembly race might be facing some bubble trouble. Starting Saturday, city officials will begin hand counting more than 7,000 votes cast in last Tuesday's municipal election after concerns that some ovals marked correctly, according to municipal code, might not have been counted.

At least that's what the campaign of Nick Moe, the 26-year-old write-in candidate, is saying. Moe challenged incumbent Anchorage Assembly chairman Ernie Hall after Hall cut off testimony on a controversial ordinance designed to limit the power labor unions that do work for the city.

On Monday, Moe's campaign requested that Anchorage conduct a hand count of ballots in Assembly District 3, Seat D. That came after the city released a statement saying it would not perform a hand count unless the total number of write-in votes cast were equal to or more than the amount of votes for the leading candidate. The same release noted that there may be “other circumstances” where the votes would be hand-counted.

Hall, the leading candidate, has only 93 votes more than the number of write-ins -- and presumably most of those belong to Moe.

The issue at hand is voter disenfranchisement, Moe said. He said there's concern that the computer systems that read the votes are incapable of doing that unless the oval is completely filled in.

The municipal code is generous when it comes to how ballots should be marked. The use of cross-marks, "X" marks, diagonal, horizontal or vertical marks, solid marks, stars, circles, asterisks, checks or plus signs are all acceptable as long as they clearly indicate the oval or the square the voter desires.

But whether the machines tallying the votes are capable of reading marks that don't completely fill the bubble is unclear.

“The bubble is an interesting thing,” Moe said. “Really, what purpose does the bubble serve? It's not an arbitrator of voter intent.”

Moe said many people have approached him since the election, concerned they might not have filled in their bubbles correctly. He figures that if enough people were concerned enough to tell him, there are probably more who made the same mistake.

“Bottom line, we don't know how many votes were missed -- or if any votes were missed at all,” Moe said. “And that's the premise for why we’re asking for a hand count.”

Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones said Moe's campaign didn't influence the city's decision to proceed with a hand count. The closeness of the race dictated that decision.

“We want to address any concerns the public might have,” Jones said.

Jones didn't know whether the voting machines had any problem reading not-completely-filled-in ovals. “A hand count may address that issue, among others,” she said.

Hall was less concerned over the marking issue.

“Those machines are pretty accurate,” he said. “But will it make a minor change one way or another? Probably.”

This isn't the first time Alaskans have had to wrestle with the issue of write-in candidates and voter intent. During the contentious 2010 U.S. Senate race, Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller went to court to fight against thousands of questioned ballots during the hand recount. Miller argued that even minor misspellings or ovals not completely filled in shouldn't count toward Murkowski's write-ins.

Miller lost, with the courts citing voter intent as paramount. The state argued that Miller was asking for a “perfection standard,” which was deemed too harsh by the Alaska Supreme Court.

“Such a standard would tend to disenfranchise many Alaskans on the basis of 'technical errors,'” the court wrote in 2010.

Details are still being worked out exactly how the hand count will work. Moe's attorney, Patrick Munson said the municipal code is vague when it comes to the specifics on how to handle a write-in hand count.

“It's not uncommon for a city to not have very clear procedures on write-in candidate,” Munson said. “Frankly, most cities never have to deal with the specifics of it.”

Munson noted that even during the Murkowski-Miller count, things were evolving as the state Division of Elections worked through how to process all the write-in votes.

Munson said the Moe campaign will continue to work with the city clerk's office to get those issues resolved by Saturday, when the hand count begins at 8:30 a.m. at City Hall.

“I have a responsibility to make sure every vote counts,” Moe said. “Win or not, it's good to have clarified the procedure.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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