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Investigations launched into Anchorage election disenfranchisement

Jill Burke,Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

A roiling round of election second-guessing ramped up Wednesday as the Anchorage Municipal Clerk's office tried to determine how a mayoral election in which 27 percent of the registered voters showed up could have resulted in widespread ballot shortages, and others tried to understand why sentiment on a controversial ballot measure flip-flopped less than a week before the vote. 

While allegations of disenfranchisement grew louder, with anecdotes of voters being turned away at the polls, some things appeared certain -- including results of the mayoral election. 

Although contender Paul Honeman isn't conceding yet, incumbent Mayor Dan Sullivan -- who led by a whopping 21 percent with nearly all precincts reporting -- declared victory. "I'm concerned, like everybody, that some voters may have been disenfranchised, but the margin is significant enough that I think I can declare victory," Sullivan said at a press conference.

He appeared to be one of the few happy voters out there. 

Questions about how far voter disenfranchisement extended spurred scrutiny from the office of the Municipal Attorney as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. Meantime, the campaigns of Honeman and of One Anchorage -- which threw its support behind the heavily-debated ballot Proposition 5 that would have included gay and transgender individuals in the city's anti-discrimination code -- are in a holding pattern while the Municipal Clerk's office sorts everything out.

Numbers and dates of note in Anchorage election

Review of questioned ballots: April 5

Final vote tally:
April 13

Election certified: April 17

Votes cast before election day: 7,500

Absentee, in-person ballots cast on election day: 1,100

Ballots printed for city election: 143,000

Approximate number of votes cast on election day: 54,946

The ACLU on Wednesday established a hotline for potentially disenfranchised voters to call to help the civil rights organization learn of any mishaps at the polls.

Jeff Mittman, ACLU of Alaska executive director and a public supporter of Prop. 5, said the ACLU did not yet have specific concerns and was gathering information based on press reports and anecdotal evidence.

"To the extent that anyone's rights may not have been appropriately recognized, ACLU takes that seriously," Mittman told Alaska Dispatch. He added that attorneys are awaiting further information from the municipality before taking any action.

What happened Tuesday night?

Meanwhile, the Municipal Clerk's office sent out a letter saying that it "understands there is a high level of interest in this election."

Barbara Gruenstein said Tuesday that Municipal Code requires enough ballots for a potential turnout of 70 percent of all registered voters in the city. That's more than 140,000. On Tuesday, only about 55,000 people cast a vote, according to preliminary results, leaving many scratching their heads as to how any polling place could have run out.

The letter from the clerk's office stated that precincts only ran out of one kind of ballot -- referred to as "ballot type 4" -- on Tuesday.

According to Gruenstein, "ballot type 4" is a universal ballot that doesn't include specialized local service-area votes that would affect only a limited road service area that can vote to tax itself for certain services. That explains why ballot type 4 was being used at so many diverse locations around the municipality, from Eagle River to Service High School on the south side of town.

All together, there were 35 different types of ballots, and Gruenstein said ballot distribution was based on historical turnout rates, which vary by precinct. Gruenstein said 142,000 total ballots were printed out for Tuesday's election.

"(The city clerk's) office will be examining each precinct to determine which ran short of ballots and how each precinct handled instances of ballot shortages," the letter said. Gruenstein said Wednesday afternoon that firm numbers on how many precincts ran out weren't available yet.

While the letter answered only a few questions about lack of ballots at polling places, it did address another issue of concern -- allegations that some voters, encouraged by a Facebook post from the No on Prop 5 campaign, were illegally registering to vote and casting ballots on election day. Municipal Code requires all voters be registered 30 days prior to voting in an election.

The clerk's office said that only 121 voters registered during the election, and that those voters "will likely not have their votes counted."

Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Council, the group responsible for the Facebook post, said in a newsletter to his followers that the information came from a conversation with an employee at the city clerk's office. According to Minnery, the issue sprung up as result of a miscommunication with that employee, who he says told him people could vote on the same day that they registered.

"The bottom line is: I should have done more research before sending out the Action Alert," Minnery said in his newsletter. "There is no good excuse other than I took the staffer at her word. I am willing to own up to my mistakes. Now is it possible that others might be willing to accept responsibility for theirs?"

Not giving up

In that same newsletter, Minnery praised the results of Tuesday's vote, but told his followers to prepare for further conflict with gay-rights proponents.

"Although last night's results are extremely gratifying, there is no time to 'rest on our laurels,' " Minnery said. "Proposition 5 was an important battle, but it was just one battle in a larger war. More battles will come. We fully expect the other side will try to place this question before voters again. So today we rest, but tomorrow we begin preparing for the next fight."

The fight may come sooner than anticipated, as One Anchorage evaluates its own path in light of Tuesday's election. Like the Honeman campaign, One Anchorage is hedging its bets until the allegations of voter disenfranchisement are investigated.

"We await final results from the Municipal Clerk," Trevor Storrs, spokesman for One Anchorage, said. "We fully expect that the Clerk's Office will continue to share information with the public as it becomes available, and our campaign will continue to monitor the process until every vote has been counted and all concerns have been addressed."

Election analysts were also trying to figure how sentiment on Prop. 5 swung so sharply in the final days of the campaign. Polling about a week before the election forecast a Prop. 5 win by nearly 10 percent, and polling closer to election day placed the vote neck and neck. So how did pollsters get it so wrong?

"That's the million dollar question," Matt Larkin, president of Dittman Research Co., said Wednesday. "What's clear is that public opinion moved fairly significantly in the last week."

Did Honeman contribute to failure of Prop. 5?

Gauging preliminary counts from election day, Prop. 5 got clobbered. Anchorage was in no mood to extend equal protection in housing and employment to people whose sexual orientation is anything other than heterosexual. Those voting against Prop. 5 led those in favor by about 16 percentage points.

Larkin believes Prop. 5 detractors gained momentum in the final week because of effective messaging by the No on 5 campaign, and because of an accidental ally in their fight -- a man who hoped to be mayor but had little chance of unseating the incumbent, a loud, loud supporter of Prop. 5.

"When a candidate who is losing by 21 points takes your issue and wraps himself in it, that's not good for your issue," Larkin said.

Paul Honeman, a retired police lieutenant and Anchorage Assemblyman had a tough battle from the start. An experienced mayor like Dan Sullivan, who had large voter support in his last election and is running the city during a fairly decent economy, is difficult to dislodge, Larkin said.

Bad-mouthing pro-Sullivan and anti-Prop. 5 voters by referring to them as "dummies" in campaign commercials didn't help. "Even if he ran a perfect campaign, it would have been impossible," Larkin said.

By winning 59 percent of the vote, Sullivan outpolled his main competitor by more than any mayor in recent Anchorage history, Larkin said.

Another curious piece of trivia from that night? Hundreds more people turned out to cast a vote on Prop. 5 than voted in the mayoral race. It is truly rare to see a ballot measure draw more votes in a mayoral election than the actual vote for mayor, Larkin said. But with core beliefs colliding at the ballot box -- religious rights on the one side and gay rights on the other -- supporters were determined to make their will known.

Heavy negative focus on transgenders during the week leading up to the vote may have also helped tip the balance against expanding Anchorage's equal rights law, according to Larkin. The messaging may have caused people to question what the measure, if passed, would really mean to life in Anchorage.

Others referred to the negative depictions of transvestites and toddlers, transvestite teachers, and scary people of unknown sexuality lurking in the bathrooms of public schools as fear-mongering and bigotry. The One Anchorage campaign found the scenarios so offensive it called for retractions and removal of the ads shortly after they appeared.

The Protect Your Rights -- No on 5 group "successfully planted the notion that this could have some real unintended consequences," Larkin said, adding he believes voters who were on the fence on the issue would have likely voted no over yes, out of fear of making a bad decision.

Had the ballot measure said "sexual orientation" without cataloguing which sexual orientations would be specifically protected, he wonders if the outcome might have been different.

Where does it all leave Anchorage?

But given the wide margins by which both Honeman and Prop. 5 went down, little would likely change without a completely new election. And according to Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler, the odds of such a do-over aren't good.

Wheeler said that the city is looking at state and federal case law to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken in light of possible voter disenfranchisement.

"We're looking at that issue now," Wheeler said. "We're fortunate in that there are some cases here in Alaska and, of course, a whole host of federal cases to see what the right remedies might be. There's a lot of factual information that we need to develop in conjunction with the clerk's office to see how what happened might fit in with those test cases."

One possibility, Wheeler said, is what's called "proportional adjustment." What's that mean? One example, according to Wheeler: if citywide voter turnout was 35 percent, and one precinct only voted at about 25 percent but historically votes in line with general turnout, then 10 percent of votes could be added to the existing vote, proportionally in-line with how that precinct was voting before it ran out of ballots.

But another election is unlikely, he said.

"Basically what I've seen so far, a new election would be the last remedy that a court would look to," because of the expense of holding a citywide election and because the spreads in Tuesday's election were so great.

Wheeler said that the most likely scenario that would spur another election would require showing "substantial impact" by such things as voter intimidation or bias toward one candidate caused by problems at the polls.

Since Anchorage voters from all sides of the political spectrum were being turned away equally on Tuesday, that makes such a scenario unlikely.

All of which is to say that it's unlikely -- though far from impossible -- for any change in the wake of Tuesday's election, despite the many reports of problems at the polls. Gruenstein said that there were still thousands upon thousands of ballots to be counted, including the questionable ballots from Tuesday's election, nearly 4,500 absentee in-person ballots and more than 3,000 mailed ballots.

That counting will begin next Wednesday and it is hoped it will be completed by Friday. 

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com and Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com