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Election officials faced ‘unprecedented harassment’ during Anchorage mayor’s runoff, report says

An election worker processes election ballot envelopes at the municipal Election Center in Anchorage on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

A new report from Anchorage’s city clerk describes the runoff election for mayor as rife with “intense scrutiny,” “unprecedented harassment of election officials” and the “dissemination of disinformation to sow distrust among voters.”

The Anchorage Assembly certified the results of the runoff on Tuesday, affirming Dave Bronson as the mayor-elect. Bronson beat opponent and Assembly member Forrest Dunbar by 45,937 to 44,744 votes, or 50.66% to 49.34%. Bronson takes office on July 1.

Before the certification of any Anchorage city election, the municipal clerk’s office provides the Assembly with a report on the results and the operations of the election.

In the report, presented Tuesday, the clerk’s office portrays an election as run successfully by city officials and election workers. But it also describes incidents including “disrespectful, harassing and threatening behavior” toward election officials from some campaign observers and members of the public.

Supporters of Bronson — in comments made on social media, during public testimony at Assembly meetings and in comments on a conservative website — have criticized the city clerk’s handling of the election and Anchorage’s vote-by-mail system.

Public records of the challenges filed during the election by Bronson’s observers show a number of the incidents described in the report involved Bronson’s observers and supporters. The majority of the registered observers were with Bronson.

The report doesn’t say which campaign’s observers and supporters were behind the behavior. Municipal clerk Barbara Jones was unavailable for an interview Tuesday and deputy elections clerk Erika McConnell deferred to Jones when asked why the report didn’t attribute behavior to specific parties or campaigns.

The clerk’s report says following the spreading of “inaccurate, misleading disinformation about the election,” one comment on social media said elections officials “should be publicly executed.” Other comments on social media called for elections officials to be fired. The report does not say on what social media site or in what context the comments were made.

Incidents included election officials being “accosted in the parking lot,” and officials being watched, photographed and their license plate numbers recorded while going to or from work.

”Although it may be legal to photograph people and cars in public areas, the intensity and tone appeared to be geared towards intimidating officials rather than serving a legitimate purpose,” the report said.

The report also asserts that false information about the election was spread on social media, a local blog and talk radio, including false claims that blank ballots had entered the election center over the weekend following election day and suggestions that other “illegal activity occurred and implicated elections officials.”

“Inaccurate and false statements about election processes, including photos and video taken by observers inside the election center, were published in an online gossip column and discussed on talk radio — neither of which contacted election officials for information or confirmation of the statements, suggesting that the purpose of the coverage was to sow disinformation and distrust about the election process,” the report says.

Nationwide, voter trust in election systems has diminished following former President Donald Trump’s false declaration that the 2020 presidential election was a fraud, sowing distrust in elections more generally, especially among Republicans.

Bronson’s team at one point parked an RV outside the elections center for 24/7 observation of the building.

In response to questions about the report, the behavior of campaign observers and whether Bronson has any concerns about the integrity of the election, the Bronson campaign provided the following statement:

“We understand the difficulty of having public scrutiny towards the elections office but those types of discussions need to happen in order to better our voting practices. Mayor-Elect Bronson looks forward to bettering the process.”

“When the behaviors were brought to the Bronson Campaign’s attention we would discuss the issue with the volunteer(s) and work to help provide a safe environment for everyone. We thank the elections team for getting the ballots certified in the two week time period,” the statement said.

An RV set up for Dave Bronson's election observers is parked in the corner of the parking lot outside the Anchorage municipal Election Center in Anchorage on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Campaigns are allowed to have up to four observers in the election center during the processing and counting of ballots and other election activities. Observers can file challenges to decisions during the process, such as whether or not a ballot should be counted if it has been marked by a voter in an unusual manner.

The report by the clerk’s office asserts that many challenges made by observers were far from having any real basis for a challenge.

Election officials were inundated with questions and challenges from the more than 95 registered campaign observers, many of whom had not been properly trained and seemed to have not read the observer manual, the report said.

This slowed ballot processing and overburdened election officials, according to the report.

In the future, the election team will limit the number of registered observers and conduct required training itself rather than allowing candidates and campaigns to train observers, the report says.

“Many observers behaved as if the purpose of their role was to find fault with the election process and election officials, instead of working cooperatively with the election officials, whose duty is to follow the law and perform their duties to the best of their ability to ensure a fair and honest election. Observers seemed frustrated by a preconceived PERCEPTION of what was happening at the Election Center and with the vote at home/vote by mail system,” the report says.

The report says that at one point following election day, Jones barred an observer from returning to the election center.

“... the election official reported that the observer stated words to the effect that, ‘I’ll bet when you go home at night you yell at your husband.’ This same observer approached another election official at the end of the day, and she reported that he said words to the effect that he ‘would be back to harass her more tomorrow,’ ” the report says.

Jones did not name the observer’s campaign in the report.

Dunbar and his campaign manager have said a Bronson’s observer was not allowed to return to the election center. The Bronson campaign has twice not responded to questions about this incident.

Vote by mail ballot drop boxes are collected on a flatbed trailer at West High on Thursday, May 13, 2021, in preparation for their transport to the municipal election center. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The fervor over the municipal election spilled into public testimony during recent Assembly meetings. Some thanked election officials while others expressed distrust and doubt about the integrity of Anchorage’s elections.

Bernadette Wilson, former campaign manager for Bronson, spoke during a special meeting last week about her dissatisfaction with the recount for two school board seats and told members “either your clerk is incompetent, is in over her head, or it’s done intentionally.”

“The reality is the integrity of this election process has been in question for years. And now it’s coming to light,” Wilson said.

Dunbar, at that same Assembly meeting, called the comments against Jones, the clerk, “slanderous.”

At Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting, Carolyn Hall, who served as spokeswoman for former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, decried comments by Wilson and others casting doubt on Jones’ integrity and conduct.

“She is the most neutral, fair and nonpartisan municipal employee I know,” said Hall, who previously worked in the city elections office. “Barbara absolutely gives equal treatment to all candidates whether they have a large base of support like Mr. Bronson or Mr. Dunbar or those who have little support. She does not see political parties and she does not express her opinion on policy. She runs a tight ship. Barbara and her staff are fair, have integrity and are extremely competent. They run transparent elections, work incredibly hard and care deeply for this community.”

Dunbar, in his Facebook post conceding the election, said that his campaign’s observers witnessed “aggressive, confrontational, and frankly bizarre behavior from Bronson supporters and staff toward Election Center workers.”

“... the Bronson campaign is strangely casting doubt on the election that they themselves are winning,” Dunbar said. “Likely, this is a prelude to a concerted attempt to repeal the Anchorage Vote By Mail system, despite the demonstrable success of that same system as seen in this year’s record turnout.”

Bronson this week announced his transition team and released a document outlining plans to review areas of municipal policy. The city’s vote-by-mail system is not specified in that document.

Voter turnout in the runoff reached a new high of 38.36% voter turnout with 90,816 ballots cast, according to the report. Of those voters, 95.8% voted from home, using mail or a drop box to deliver their ballot, rather than casting a ballot at an in-person vote center.

“Despite these examples of the intense scrutiny of the election, the dissemination of disinformation to sow distrust among voters, and the unprecedented harassment of election officials including by taking photographs and video of them and their cars and (threatening) that we are watching you, the Anchorage Vote at Home/Vote by Mail system displayed flexibility, consistency, and accuracy, and thrived with record turnout and participation by voters,” the report says.

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