Alaska elections director tells lawmakers: Division will fix 'training gaps'

Alaska lawmakers quizzed the state's top appointed elections official Monday about problems in this month's primary election, with the official acknowledging that poll workers were still allowed to work on election day even if they missed training sessions.

"There's really no ramification for them not to attend," Josie Bahnke, the state elections director, told legislators assembled for Monday's hearing in Anchorage.

The attendance at the legislative hearing by Bahnke, who called in from Juneau, punctuated the meeting convened by Chugiak Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze, the chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Over the course of nearly three hours, the panel of lawmakers, plus an audience made up almost entirely of Republican activists, staffers and party officials, pored over reports of election irregularities compiled by mainstream media outlets, as well as websites run by Suzanne Downing, the Alaska Republican Party's spokeswoman, and Craig Medred, a paid consultant to the Republican-led Senate majority.

The committee paid particular attention to a pair of races in which Democratic Party-backed challengers appear to have defeated incumbent Bush Democrats who caucus with the House's Republican-led majority, Reps. Bob Herron of Bethel and Ben Nageak of Barrow.

The problems recounted Monday deserve investigation, said Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski, even if lawmakers have ignored similar irregularities in the past. Wielechowski, a member of the committee, was the only Democrat to sit through the hearing.

"It's unfortunate that it took a member of the Republican majority losing an election to bring some attention to voting problems we've had in Alaska for many, many years," Wielechowski said in a phone interview. But, he added, "I think there are legitimate concerns that were raised today, no doubt about it."


Most of Monday's hearing focused on reports of problems at polling places in Herron's and Nageak's districts, in rural Southwest and northern Alaska, respectively.

Herron trails challenger Zach Fansler by more than 300 votes in unofficial results. But Nageak's deficit to his challenger, Dean Westlake, is just 21 votes — slightly more than 1 percent of the 1,617 total votes cast in House District 40, according to a final count released late Friday.

Nageak didn't respond to a phone message Monday about whether he planned to challenge the results. But Westlake said Nageak called him over the weekend to offer what sounded like a concession.

"He called me up on Saturday morning, congratulated me," Westlake said in a phone interview Monday. "I took it at face value."

Bahnke, however, said the state isn't done examining the results in Westlake's district. Voters in some of the precincts there reported irregularities, including Republicans in the North Slope community of Barrow who said they were incorrectly forced to vote questioned ballots if they wanted to participate in the Democratic primary.

And in the Northwest Alaska village of Shungnak, voters were mistakenly given two ballots instead being forced to choose from one with Republican candidates, or one with candidates from other parties.

"If voting irregularities in Shungnak appear to have changed the outcome of the race, we are absolutely considering options of what do," Bahnke told committee members.

Tuckerman Babcock, the chair of the Alaska Republican Party, said in a phone interview Monday that it would be "appalling" if the state elections review board certified the District 40 results as they stand.

"If they decide to ignore everything illegal that's happened and certify a winner," Babcock said, he will likely convene a meeting with local and statewide Republican leaders and the party's attorney "and decide what to do next."

An aide to Stoltze walked committee members through several other reports of irregularities — in two precincts in Southwest Alaska and one in the community of Copper Center, where reporting of results was delayed.

Lawmakers peppered Bahnke with questions about the state elections division's training procedures for poll workers, which, she acknowledged, may have had some holes.

Bahnke told lawmakers that under a retooled program this year, her division hired Juneau public broadcaster KTOO and recorded training sessions streamed over the Internet and distributed through more than 300 DVDs.

Bahnke said the effort saved more than $200,000 at a time when the state is facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. Her division ensures that poll workers took the training by asking them to submit time sheets required for payment — but she also acknowledged that workers who missed the training weren't barred from participating in subsequent elections.

"Once the dust settles with the primary, I can assure you that we will regroup as an election management team to address those training gaps, and address them meaningfully going into the general election," she said.


Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com