Opinions

Alaska is no stranger to post-election drama

Jay Hammond

A great many people have expressed concern that various complications associated with voting may disrupt the upcoming election. Confusion over deadlines for mailing or dropping off or casting a ballot have raised alarm. Concerns over potential fraud have sown worry and consternation.

On its face, an election should be a simple matter. Voters register, vote in person or mail their vote. Election workers verify identities, count ballots, and election officials verify the count, and announce the certified result.

But there are simply too many links in that chain for the process to always work flawlessly. Mistakes are made, usually through inadvertence or carelessness, and when that happens, it’s not uncommon for the loser to suspect, and, charge fraud. This can sometimes lead to long and costly elaborations on the process, inevitably to frustration, and high drama. Alaska’s voting has been afflicted with such elaborations. One of the most dramatic occurred in the Republican gubernatorial primary election in 1978 between incumbent Gov. Jay Hammond and his veteran challenger Walter Hickel.

The election was held on Aug. 22, and when the initial tabulation was complete, Hammond had bested Hickel by 98 votes. In the Democratic primary, Chancy Croft finished 246 votes ahead of Ed Merdes. But on Aug. 30, Hickel forces charged that the election had been tainted by fraud and corruption. The state held a recount on Sept. 18 which found again that Hammond had out-tallied Hickel and Croft had bested Merdes.

But subsequently, the losers filed suit in Superior Court in Anchorage, challenging the election results. On Oct. 8, the charges were heard by Judge Ralph Moody, a former Alaska attorney general.

Hickel’s and Merdes' challenges rested on a number of irregularities. On election evening, after polls closed and the ballots counted, a 17-year-old full-time election clerk working at the computer counting center in Anchorage took possession of about 2,000 questioned ballots he was to deliver to the Anchorage Election Office. He locked them in the trunk of his car, which he left parked outside his residence overnight, delivering them the following morning. Those ballots were not secure during the night. Meantime, in Kwethluk and Kotlik, 141 ballots were discarded after election night; they were to have been mailed to the lieutenant governor, who oversees Alaska elections. Before being discarded, the votes had been recorded in a tally book and reported to the Nome election office by telephone. Back in Anchorage, 247 ballots were found to have been misplaced by election officials and were later found in an unlocked file cabinet in the Anchorage election office a month after the election, uncounted. And several days after the recount, a bag of recounted ballots was found discarded in the Juneau election office, suggesting the possibility of manipulation. Additionally, 57 unregistered voters had been permitted to cast ballots, 38 ballots had been improperly counted, and two registered voters were denied the franchise. There were other, less significant issues.

All this was enough for Judge Moody. On Oct. 8, he ruled that the election had been tainted, and ordered a new election. The general election was scheduled for Nov. 7.

The state immediately appealed Judge Moody’s ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court and asked for an expedited hearing and decision. This was indeed high drama. If the Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court ruling, it was unlikely a new primary could be organized before the general election. Within a few weeks the principals and their attorneys appeared before the court. The proceedings were carried on radio across the state.

Some of the most distinguished attorneys in the state represented the candidates, including two former attorneys general. The justices also were distinguished, led by Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. The proceedings were carried on radio across the state as citizens waited in suspense, pondering the possible outcomes.

On Oct. 20, the Court ruled. The justices found that while there were indeed serious irregularities, none of them represented corruption, but only “malconduct.” They were inadvertent or simply careless errors, none of which materially affected the final tally. They ordered the 247 uncounted ballots to be appropriately added to the previous totals. And they ordered that the winning candidates should proceed to the election, a little over two weeks hence.

In the general, Hammond defeated Croft handily to serve a second term.

Hickel, disagreeing with the court’s decision, never retracted his charge that the election had been stolen through corruption. Master playwright Dick Reichman captured Hickel’s bitterness in a delightful Cyranos’s Theater production in 2016 titled “The Ticket.”

We should hope that in the aftermath of this year’s general election next Tuesday, the results are clear, charges of “malconduct” are absent or few, and that voters can put the electoral drama behind them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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