The Anchorage Assembly is getting ready to vote on a set of proposed code changes to the city’s election laws. It’s something the Assembly does every year, after a review of the election code, to clarify and improve the laws and address any new issues.
This year’s changes, under consideration at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, include requiring election observers to complete a city-provided training and tour of the election center. The changes would also enshrine in code that observers must follow the Election Observer’s Handbook and that the municipal clerk, with “good cause,” can limit the number of observers.
Mayor Dave Bronson and some of his allies have criticized the changes, saying they would significantly restrict the ability of the public and candidates to observe election processes. Election observers are appointed by campaigns and candidates to watch the conduct of an election, including ballot processing.
“These changes significantly reduce transparency of the election process. When changes are made to elections, the public must be intimately involved and changes must be truly warranted,” Bronson said during an Assembly meeting earlier this month. “A close examination of these proposed changes shows that the public and candidates ability to observe the election process will be significantly restricted.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about specific proposed changes to the code and how those would reduce transparency.
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Assembly leaders have pushed back against Bronson’s assertions, saying the proposed changes aren’t significant or restrictive to observers, do not change how many observers campaigns are allowed or when they can be at the election center.
“Most of the changes that we’re making are minor, housekeeping-type amendments,” said Assembly member Pete Petersen, chair of the Assembly’s Ethics and Elections Committee.
Still, the proposal has drawn some outcry. During a recent Assembly meeting, people testifying against the changes echoed sentiments that are being heard on a national level, saying they didn’t trust the election process, with some touting disproven claims about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
‘There were employees that didn’t feel safe’
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said some changes are meant to address issues that arose with Bronson’s campaign observers during the runoff election for mayor in the spring.
“There were major concerns over people making threats and being awful,” Constant said of observers at the Anchorage election center.
After that election, the municipal clerk released a report that described “unprecedented harassment of election officials,” the “dissemination of disinformation to sow distrust among voters” and “disrespectful, harassing and threatening behavior” toward election officials from some campaign observers and members of the public.
At the time, Bronson’s campaign in a statement said that the campaign worked “to help provide a safe environment for everyone.”
“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,” Bronson’s campaign said.
Petersen said that some of the proposed changes are intended help alleviate pressure on already-overworked election officials and workers, putting some checks on observers.
“They’re in the process of the election, counting 70-, 80-, 90,000 votes. It’s a big job,” Petersen said. “There were employees that didn’t feel safe coming to work at the election center with all these observers.”
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Proposed changes include:
• Adding a line to code saying observers “shall follow instructions of the municipal clerk or designee and on-site security.”
• Adding a line saying observers “shall conform to the obligations set forth in the Election Observer’s Handbook.”
• Requiring observers to complete a training by the clerk’s office instead of by campaign teams, and complete a tour of the election center.
• Adding that the number of observers for each campaign or candidate allowed at the election center depends on “space or regulatory constraints.” Each candidate or group may have at least one but no more than four observers, depending on the constraints, according to the proposal.
• It also changes code to stipulate that the clerk can, with “good cause,” limit the number of observers to less than four each. Under the current code, candidates can have at least one but not more than four observers, if the clerk determines, “at the clerk’s sole discretion,” that the election center can accommodate more than one.
• A revised version of the Election Observer’s Handbook.
During the last election this spring, “there were a number of people at the election center and it got to the point where it was just chaotic,” Petersen said. “And so we’re trying to update the handbook and give some training to the observers ahead of time so that they understand, a little bit more, the process.”
Campaigns and candidates would still be able to have up to four observers at the election center, as the code currently allows, and one observer at each in-person vote center.
But during elections with many candidates — such as with 13 mayoral candidates in the last regular election — it can be difficult for the city’s elections staff to accommodate four observers for each campaign in the election center, Petersen said. The code change would specify that spacing constraints may exist in crowded elections, he said.
The clerk has the final say on the total number of observers allowed in the election center, and each candidate or campaign would still get an equal proportion, the same as in current code.
Petersen, the municipal clerk’s office and others gathered feedback from the public on the first round of proposed changes, and the Assembly is now slated to consider a revised version.
Petersen said that the biggest changes for observers are not actually in city code, but in the Election Observer’s Handbook, which is an attachment to the code requirements.
Erika McConnell, Anchorage’s deputy municipal clerk of elections, said that because the Assembly is considering a newly revised version of the proposal, a newly revised version of the handbook to go along with the proposal will not be available until the Assembly meeting Tuesday.
Nationwide, voter trust in election systems has fallen, especially following former President Donald Trump’s false declaration that the 2020 presidential election was a fraud.
That distrust was on display at an Assembly meeting earlier this month, during the first round of public testimony on the election code changes. Many testifiers said they worry the proposed changes put too much power in the hands of the city clerk. Others spoke about disproven claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election, saying that they believed that fraud took place.
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“Since Trump was unable to achieve the presidency, because of the fake voting that was put on, you’re taking on an agenda piece that is going to be very controversial. Especially with it running on the heels of Biden usurping the presidency, because of faulty voting,” one man testified to the Assembly. He later said that the changes would be “disenfranchising the citizens from overseeing the vote.”
Several testifiers said that they are concerned with the security of the city’s elections and criticized Anchorage’s mail-in voting system.
“I’ve pretty much lost all confidence in the voting process, in the tally process and everything involved,” said John Henry, a South Anchorage resident.
“Why can’t we have more observers?” he later asked.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who lost to Bronson in the runoff race for mayor, told testifiers that assertions that the presidential election results were fraudulent are false.
“... When you say that whenever the opposite opposing party wins, it’s only because they lied or they cheated and their election isn’t valid — that’s how you genuinely destroy democracy in this country,” Dunbar said. “That’s how our Constitution ends.”
“I accepted the fact that Mayor Bronson won this last election. I believe that there were — that the votes were valid, just as they were valid in 2020, just as they were valid in 2019. Just as they are valid in years before that. We have protections,” Dunbar said. “It is the core of our country, our Constitution, our democracy, that we respect the vote after it happens and we don’t falsify things, and we don’t falsify things to undermine American democracy.”
Several audience members booed and scoffed as Dunbar made his statement.
The Assembly will hear a second round of public testimony on the proposed election code changes during its Tuesday meeting.