If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, the saying goes, it’s probably a duck. It’s a folksy way of conveying a principle known as Occam’s razor: If there are competing explanations for how something happened, the simplest one is most often the case.
There are surely a number of explanations for how Bronson administration ally and former chief of staff Sami Graham came to file an election complaint that cited a computer policy only hours old that didn’t exist in any public form, but the simplest one is that the complaint was the result of coordination between Graham and administration officials. And the circumstances of that seeming coordination are cause for grave concern.
Graham’s complaint alleged that elections officials didn’t properly ensure the security of USB drives used to transport election data from “air gapped” machines to internet-connected computers for public reporting of results. At issue was a policy stating that the insertion of USB drives into any piece of municipal computer infrastructure had to be approved by IT personnel, and the drives had to be scanned by the IT Department before use.
On its face, the policy seems sensible from a lay perspective: Shouldn’t we want to make sure there’s no malware or other suspicious content on the thumb drives being used for sensitive data? But the flaws in the policy quickly become apparent. First, abundant security around the USB drives used for elections already exists: The thumb drives are stored in a wall safe in a locked room that requires a code and thumbprint to open, according to elections clerk Jamie Heinz. The drives are wiped and encrypted each year in accordance with city IT practices, and the thumb drives require a passcode in order to download election results.
What’s more, the policy as written is absurdly broad, and if followed would require an IT Department scan every time any municipal employee plugged a USB drive into any computer. Anyone who has worked in an office environment can understand the massive bottlenecks such a system would create, and how much of a burden it would place on IT staff to deal with hundreds of needless device scans per day.
But the real red flag about the IT policy is that there’s no reason Graham and her compatriots should have known it even existed. It had been added to the municipality’s internal network by municipal IT director Marc Dahl on April 11, only two hours before Graham’s complaint was filed, and the policy was not accessible by the public. None of the people making the complaint had any means of accessing the policy, but they somehow quoted it verbatim.
Also notable: The policy didn’t exist at the time Graham said municipal elections employees had violated it (April 6 and 7), and Heinz said no elections personnel had been made aware of its existence before the complaint. It’s worth remembering that by April 11, the results of the election — a continuation of the center-left supermajority on the Assembly — were clear.
Fortunately for Anchorage residents, someone who realized the suspicious timing and nature of the complaint alerted the municipal ombudsman, and an investigation is underway. But there are many questions voters still need answers to, and the administration must be forthcoming if it has any hope of regaining the public’s trust:
• Was the policy drafted through any kind of a deliberative process, or was it solely Dahl’s creation? If there was discussion of the policy beforehand, who was privy to that discussion?
• What contact did Graham and her allies have with IT staff such that they were aware of the policy and its exact language?
• Was Mayor Dave Bronson aware of the policy or the complaint before they were made, and to what extent did he engage in their creation?
The creation of policies after a properly conducted election that enable complaints with the power to alter or overturn those election results is hugely destabilizing to voters’ faith that the administration can be trusted to keep its thumb off the scale when it comes to overseeing future elections. At the least, the policy and complaint appear to be a tandem effort to sow doubt in election results; at worst, they are a means by which the sitting administration could use its administrative power to try and throw out the results of a duly conducted election. It’s a playbook that is seeing increasingly frequent use across the U.S., as partisans who are unable to convince voters seek instead to change the rules — sometimes after the fact — in a desperate bid to change or disqualify the outcome of election contests.
That’s about as undemocratic as it gets. And Anchorage residents deserve a full accounting of any attempt to make it happen here.