After Anchorage Assembly leaders issued subpoenas in an ongoing inquiry into a challenge to the April city election, two election observers appeared at a Friday meeting to answer questions. Sami Graham, a former chief of staff to Mayor Dave Bronson, and Daniel Smith wholly denied allegations that they had coordinated with a top city official in an attempt to interfere with election results.
The election challenge filed by observers Graham, Smith and John Henry sparked an investigation by the city ombudsman over concerns that they may have coordinated with then-director of Office of Information Technology Mark Dahl to drum up a false city policy used as the basis for their election challenge.
Graham and Smith told Assembly members that they filed the election complaint in good faith, believing that election staff had violated a city security policy on the use of USB drives.
On the day the observers filed the challenge, April 11, Dahl emailed Graham that improperly created security policy. Graham, Smith and Henry used that policy language in their appeal, citing it verbatim as the basis for the challenge.
“It was from the IT director. I took it at his word that that was the policy,” Graham told Assembly members. She resigned as chief of staff in 2022 and no longer works for the city.
But that security policy was not an official municipal-wide rule as they had asserted in their appeal. That morning, Dahl had instructed IT staff to post it to an internal city webpage. The security policy didn’t undergo the rigorous review process required for citywide policies and hadn’t been signed into effect by the mayor, also a requirement.
Smith told Assembly members that Graham had penned the appeal and that he believed the policy she quoted was a real policy when he signed the document.
“I was told by Ms. Graham she found it and therefore had no reason to doubt it,” Smith said.
Assembly leaders also sent subpoenas to Dahl and Henry. They did not appear at the Friday meeting. Their legal representatives had asked for more time to prepare, Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said.
Dahl resigned as IT director on Sept. 20, after Bronson asked him to step down.
Ombudsman Darrel Hess, in an investigation released in August, recommended that the mayor fire Dahl. Hess concluded that he “reasonably believes that there may have been a violation of state election statutes,” and referred the investigation to the state Office of Special Prosecutions. Dahl’s attorney has said that Dahl “vehemently denies the Ombudsman’s allegations of civil and/or criminal misconduct.”
The mayor has defended Dahl, saying he’s seen no evidence that Dahl took illegal action and that he believes Dahl “thought he had identified a potential security risk to our servers and used poor judgment in an attempt to resolve it.”
Assembly leaders raised questions about what role the mayor played in the incident, including asking whether Bronson knew about the policy or the challenge. In recent statements, Bronson has said that he knew nothing of the policy’s development or the situation until it became public in May.
The security policy would require the IT department to authorize use of USB drives on any city equipment and require the drives be scanned for malware. And, any insertion into city “critical infrastructure” would need to first be approved or observed by an IT department manager. In their appeal, Graham and the other observers asserted that would include the election center’s equipment.
They claimed that USB drives used by election staff to transfer tabulation results could be intentionally or unintentionally altering data, “thereby nullifying the results of the election.”
On Friday, Constant asked Graham whether anyone directed or encouraged her to file election complaints.
“No one,” Graham said.
Later, Constant said he would reserve for the future another set of questions related to whether someone had suggested Graham make the complaint, saying he believes “there might be some other testimonies to come that would demonstrate a different set of facts.”
Graham’s lawyer, William Ingaldson, pushed back, saying Constant had suggested there is unseen evidence. “This is an open meeting to find out what the facts are,” Ingaldson said.
Constant then asked of Graham, “Did you say to someone — at fundraiser at the Petroleum Club that may have been witnessed — that you feel used? Because you made this complaint on behalf of another person?”
Graham responded, “No.”
It’s still not clear what motivated Dahl to direct his staff to publish the policy April 11 or why he emailed it to Graham that day.
Graham told Assembly members that a few days earlier, on April 6, she filed an initial complaint about the use of USB drives in the election center.
As a security measure, election equipment is “air gapped,” meaning it’s not connected to the internet. Election workers must download election results to thumb drives and transfer the results to a computer in order to publish them. Election staff use encrypted thumb drives that they obtained from the city IT department several years ago.
Graham was concerned about that.
“The process is questionable because we are not aware of a publicly observable step to verify the thumb drive is actually blank,” she wrote in the the April 6 complaint. She asked that a “qualified and mutually agreed-upon member” of the city IT department supervise.
In a written response given to Graham the next day, then-election clerk Jamie Heinz, now the municipal clerk, said the USB drives are stored in a wall safe inside a locked room requiring a code and thumbprint, and are encrypted and reformatted each year according to city IT practices.
Graham on Friday told Assembly members that Heinz didn’t cite the specific IT “policy” in her response. So she called Dahl to find out.
“I contacted Mr. Dahl and said, ‘What’s the policy?’ And then he said, ‘I’ll get back to you,’” Graham said. Then, on the afternoon of April 11, she received an email from Dahl with the policy statement attached, she said.
Graham later presented her appeal to the city’s election commission, just before it finalized the vote counts.
“I never stated that I wanted the election to be overturned,” Graham said Friday. But the appeal form is the only available route when an observer isn’t satisfied with an answer to their complaint, she said.
That form asks the observer to explain how their concern “would change the outcome of the election if found to be true.”
Constant on Friday said that changes or an addition to the forms would likely be needed.
Graham and Smith on Friday both told Assembly members that they still harbor the same concerns about the use of USB drives.
During its upcoming revision to election code and policies, the Assembly will take that into account and “explore refinement of how USB drives are handled,” Constant said. However, “no one has produced any evidence that the USB drives used in our elections have somehow been corrupted,” he said.
Some Assembly members said that the city should take steps to alleviate observers’ concerns about USB drives. “If a policy is reasonable, and it’s beneficial, and it has merit, then why wouldn’t you want to implement it?” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.
Assembly leaders have said they issued the subpoenas because Graham and Dahl did not attend a meeting earlier this month to answer questions. The city’s election code must be updated before January in order to implement any necessary changes and protections ahead of the spring election, they said.
“If we find that the IT director did, in fact, insert himself improperly into the election, we have to understand what that means for the conduct of our elections,” Constant said during Friday’s meeting. “Because even if the clerk owns the election, the Assembly owns the process of the election, and it’s implemented by a nonpartisan group of people, the IT director still has authority over our IT systems at the municipality, writ large. And so we have to contemplate what that means.”