Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor accused of misleading claim about mail-in voting

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s contentious debate over a plan to expand mail-in voting was further inflamed this week as borough Mayor Charlie Pierce was accused by the Assembly’s president of spreading misinformation on Facebook about the plan.

Pierce responded by saying he “has a First Amendment right” to say what he wants, but after the meeting said he did not intend to misinform the public and did not write the post in question.

Under the borough plan, residents would be sent ballots each year and would be able to cast them by mail. Residents could also ignore that system and vote in person.

Pierce vetoed the proposal, but on Tuesday the Assembly overrode the veto, leaving it on track for implementation in 2021. Pierce and others are supporting a voter referendum, and the Assembly’s action could be overturned.

On Tuesday, Pierce spoke at length about the need for the Assembly to build trust among voters. That appeared to irritate Assembly President Kelly Cooper, who said trust is built by accuracy and quoted a June 13 poll on Pierce’s campaign Facebook page. The poll asked, “Do you want Borough-wide, MANDATORY VOTE BY MAIL?”

The borough’s proposed new system is not mandatory.

Cooper called the post “irresponsible.”

“Why is that irresponsible?” Pierce said.

“Because it is not mandatory vote by mail. It’s a hybrid vote by mail. And so … when we talk about trust, I think we have some responsibility with that,” she said.

After a further exchange questioning the comment, Pierce said, “Listen, I have a First Amendment right, just like you do.”

“Well, you also have a responsibility, when you talk about trust, to be accurate,” Cooper said.

Kenai Assemblyman Jesse Bjorkman supports Pierce’s position on the vote-by-mail issue but said, “Mayor Pierce has shown that he has a tortured relationship with the truth and has twisted the facts in order to achieve the result that he wants.”

“The First Amendment indeed allows the mayor to say what he wants. It’s clear to me that the mayor knew what he was saying with his Facebook poll and the response it would elicit,” Bjorkman said.

Pierce said after the meeting that he was not implying that he has a First Amendment right to lie to voters. He said he thought in the moment that Cooper was trying to shut him down, and he was defending his right to speak.

He interprets the Facebook post as saying the Assembly is mandating a change without a borough-wide vote.

After the meeting, Cooper said the mayor tends to follow a strategy of enraging voters to get them to be engaged, and she felt he crossed a line.

“I think that Charlie doesn’t always value the importance of being completely accurate to our constituents. We are at a time in our political world when (politicians) ‘keep them enraged to keep them engaged,' and he may have people who are volunteering who like to do that,” she said of the post.

Assemblyman Norm Blakely, who supports the mayor’s position on the vote-by-mail program, said the Kenai borough is politically divided, and the area’s politics are becoming sharper.

Pierce faces reelection, and Cooper is running for state House against Sarah Vance, one of Pierce’s political allies. (Pierce donated the maximum possible to Vance’s 2018 election campaign; he has not donated to her this year.)

On a national level, President Donald Trump has made various incorrect claims about voting by mail. There is no evidence that voting by mail favors a particular political party or that it is unusually subject to fraud. The president’s unsubstantiated claims otherwise have been repeated by some Republicans.

Blakely said the borough’s political divide is sharp enough that he’s decided against running for reelection.

“Hopefully it’ll get better. That’s what I’d like to see,” he said.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.