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Anchorage election deadlines changed for initiatives, referendums

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 14, 2016

An ambiguity in Anchorage law has led to a reinterpretation of city deadlines for referendum and initiative petitions, buying some petitioners a little more time to make it on the April ballot, at least on paper.

Last Friday, deputy city clerk Amanda Moser released an updated election calendar that listed Jan. 21 as the "recommended date" for submitting signatures for an initiative. The calendar listed Feb. 3 as the deadline for submitting referendum signatures.

Before that, however, the clerks had told anyone who wanted to file an initiative or referendum that the deadline was Jan. 11. The second week of January had been the deadline for both types of petitions.

A referendum is a ballot measure to erase an existing law; an initiative is a ballot measure that creates a law.

While the city charter hasn't changed, City Attorney Bill Falsey, who took office in July, said the old deadline system was incorrect.

"Jan. 11 is the first date on which you can submit a referendum petition," based on city charter, Falsey said.

The charter states after a referendum petition has been received and certified by the city, it must appear on a regular election ballot within 75 days. Initiatives must go on the ballot of the next regular election being held "at least" 45 days after the certification date.

The 2015 election calendar clearly said the "last day" to submit referendum and initiative signatures was Jan. 12, a Monday. The new calendar gives referendum supporters an extra week to submit petition signatures.

For initiative supporters, the timing difference is more substantial in comparison to last year: an extra three weeks.

Supporters of an initiative that would clarify the way the city's tax cap is calculated welcomed the added time. That initiative application was filed Jan. 4, and is still being reviewed by the city attorney's office before it can circulate for signatures. That process can take up to 10 business days.

"That will make a difference for us," said initiative co-sponsor Bob Griffin. "Obviously, we weren't going to be able to get it on this ballot."

Griffin said it will still be a "little bit of a scramble" to make the April ballot. But he noted that a 2009 initiative related to the tax cap garnered 11,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

Word of the change, however, dismayed David O'Malley, who was co-sponsoring an initiative to allow taxi companies like Uber and Lyft in Anchorage.

O'Malley said supporters have not yet begun collecting signatures. He said the initiative is being suspended, partly so supporters can wait and see what happens in the upcoming state legislative session.

But he said timing also played a role, with Jan. 11 seeming too soon. When told Thursday by a reporter of the new calendar, O'Malley said: "I had no idea … that would have given us ... another four weeks."

He added: "Feb. 3, that might have worked."

Meanwhile, despite the additional week, ballot language for a referendum on Anchorage's new law barring discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people is still in flux. The city's new deadline to submit signatures is just days away.

Bernadette Wilson, the lead sponsor of the petition application, said in a text message Thursday supporters will not collect signatures. She said she wasn't yet ready to discuss the group's next steps.

Moser, the deputy clerk said the update followed weeks of back-and-forth with Falsey's office and hand-counting days on a calendar. She said the previous Jan. 11 deadline was based on the past legal interpretation that it was a soft deadline.

The updated calendar accounts for the time required by elections officials to certify signatures, prepare ballots and publish an election notice, Moser said.

"I think from the clerk's offices' perspective, that is that fine line of wanting to make sure we are giving the public sufficient time to to able to (fix) what they need to, and also being able to work with our deadline to get on the ballot and meet noticing requirements," Moser said. She said the clerk's office tries to be as accommodating as possible.

Falsey added the earlier deadline for referendums is not a "hard legal deadline," since the Assembly could call a special election for a referendum. The charter requires a special election if a referendum isn't filed on time for a regular election.

The city system contrasts with state elections, where deadlines revolve around the state legislative session. Carol Thompson, who manages petitions for the Alaska Division of Elections in Anchorage, said initiative signatures have to be submitted before the Legislature convenes in Juneau.

The election where the ballot measure would appear is determined by the end of the Legislative session, but that's the main fluctuation, Thompson said.

"We're pretty deadline-driven, as in, 'This is when you have to have it done,'" Thompson said.

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