AD Main Menu

Even one vote denied in Anchorage election an affront to democracy

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

TO: International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan

CC: Frank and Nancy Murkowski

Dear Election Observers,

As you may know, Anchorage, Alaska's largest urban settlement, held a municipal election recently. It featured a hot-button citizens initiative, a contentious (though frankly not close) race for the mayor's office, three races for school board, and several bond packages.

More voters turned out this year than in many years past in celebration of the democratic institution that we all put so much faith in. Unfortunately, that faith has been shaken across the entire Anchorage political spectrum.

First off, somewhere around half of all precincts reported "running out" of ballots. The law requires election officials to have enough ballots printed to cover 70 percent of each area's registered voters, just in case that many bother to show up.

The ballot shortage led to an unknown but uncomfortably large number of people being turned away from the polls without casting a vote.

We know ... in the United States of America. In 2012.

There is no way at the moment to fully determine how many people were disenfranchised because the city ran out of ballots this week, but it's safe to say that too many were, perhaps even more than a hundred. There were more than 7,500 ballots that weren't counted at the polls for various reasons. That's more than 10 percent of the total number of votes actually cast on Tuesday.

We know we don't need to tell you this, but even one person disenfranchised is too many, especially considering that Anchorage is known for its dismal voter turnouts.

"We will never run out of ballots," said Municipal Clerk Barbara Gruenstein in March 2011, somewhat facetiously we think, when KTVA asked her about Anchorage's history of poor voter turnout.

Regardless of past elections, 27 percent of registered Anchorage voters turned out on election day to cast a ballot this time. We know that might not seem like very many people to you, since you're used to observing national elections in Taiwan, where democracy is relatively new and the voter turnout regularly reaches above 70 percent. But it's actually a high response for Anchorage. In a local election in 2010, only 19 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Yawn. Civic duty should be more exciting, shouldn't it.

Several things have been proposed in the wake of the giant election mess so that it never happens again. One near-term option some people are considering is to sue the city back to the Stone Age. Judging from the tally on Proposition 5, an equal-rights initiative, we suspect it won't have far to go. People have also been calling for an emergency election to replace the botched one. Which is why we're writing you.

As we understand it, former U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski joined you as part of a team that monitored Taiwan's presidential election last January. He even had to deliver a speech during the whole thing to quell accusations of U.S. interference. Would you be interested in observing Alaska elections, and in the unlikely event one occurs, the Anchorage do-over? In the interest of total objectivity, it probably wouldn't be the best idea to involve former Sen. Murkowski in the observations, but he could no doubt help things get off the ground.

For a long time, Alaska has been fighting against the idea that it's practically a third-world country and that its version of democracy is on shaky ground and isn't always fair to everyone. This latest episode doesn't help.

Since investigations about this travesty may or may not discover its cause, knowing how to prevent something like it in the future may not be easy. One solution has been proposed to simply rid Anchorage of any polling places at all, and just do as Oregon does: Have everyone vote by mail. The plan is interesting, could make voting much more convenient for some people, and maybe it would even save government money.

But the city might not like that idea. After all, voting by mail would require printing a ballot for every single registered voter, even if a good portion of the batch might end up in the trash. Conversely, election turnout might increase when voters are faced each go-round with an actual ballot. And that would require the city to -- egad -- spend money on the democratic process that we hear was recently cut from the budget. Then again, people might not welcome a new system that appears to remove the voting process from direct contact with the public eye.

At first we were worried that the long history of municipal voter apathy led city leaders to think they were safe not printing all the ballots they were required to. The city claims it printed all the ballots it was supposed to, but for some reason, not enough of them were available when they were needed. No one knows what happened to them. Or why. And that's exactly why we think Alaska, Anchorage especially, needs a version of your organization.

If officials think somebody is watching, they'll be less likely to skimp on the most fundamental part of life in a free United States.

Thanks for your consideration,

The Concerned

Contact Scott Woodham at or on