Alaska’s campaign watchdog agency has found that a group advocating for the repeal of ranked choice voting in the state illegally funneled funding through a church in Washington state.
Staff at the Alaska Public Offices Commission found that Art Mathias, one of the leaders of the ongoing ballot measure effort to repeal Alaska’s new voting system, contributed $90,000 toward the ballot group — making up the bulk of the funding the group has received so far — but all that money was directed through an organization called the Ranked Choice Education Association.
The Ranked Choice Education Association was incorporated as a church in Washington state late last year. Its status as a faith-based organization could grant tax benefits to its donors. However, potential tax benefits weren’t addressed in the APOC investigation that concluded Friday.
Mathias did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story. Kevin Clarkson, Alaska’s former attorney general, is representing Mathias and the anti-ranked choice voting organizations he leads. Clarkson did not respond to a call and email seeking comment. In his July response to the original complaint, Clarkson called the ballot group’s errors “minor reporting mistakes” and asked that the complaint to be dismissed.
The staff recommendation now goes to the full commission.
The APOC investigation was launched in response to a complaint filed in July by a pro-ranked choice voting group, Alaskans for Better Elections, alleging that the people behind the effort to repeal the state’s new voting laws had repeatedly violated state campaign ethics rules.
The complaint was written and filed by Scott Kendall, an Anchorage attorney who was involved in writing the 2020 ballot measure that put in place Alaska’s current voting laws.
That original ballot measure, adopted by a slim margin, moved the state from a system of partisan primaries and traditional general elections to a new voting process by which all candidates appear on the same nonpartisan primary ballot, and the top four vote-getters, regardless of political party, advance to a general election. General election results are determined by ranked choice voting only if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote outright.
Now, a ballot group led by Mathias and Phillip Izon seeks to repeal the new method and revert to Alaska’s previous voting system. The group’s leaders say the system is confusing, reduces voter turnout and removes the ability of political parties to choose their candidates — thus making conservative Republicans less likely to win. One of the group’s prominent figureheads is former Gov. Sarah Palin, who lost a U.S. House race to Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola.
The APOC investigation found that the ballot group violated state law by failing to report its funding and expenditures accurately, and by failing to include necessary information about the source of its funding on its online materials.
‘There had to be motivations’
According to the articles of incorporation for the Ranked Choice Education Association, the goal of the Washington-based church is “to promote Christian doctrines.” Mathias and Izon have said that the church is not focused exclusively on Alaska, and through its activities, they have traveled to several states to speak about what they see as the detriments of ranked choice voting.
Mathias, the church president, along with Izon, the church director, are also the leaders of the ballot group. APOC staff found that Mathias had illegally funneled his $90,000 funding for the ballot measure through the church. Such a move could have allowed Mathias to seek a tax deduction for the contribution. However, that is not under APOC’s jurisdiction and was not investigated by staff.
Clarkson, the attorney for the ballot group, wrote in July that “speculations about tax deductions that may or may not have been taken are pointless because once again the only government agency with jurisdiction over federal income tax deductions is the IRS.”
A separate complaint against the Ranked Choice Education Association was filed with the IRS by Juneau resident Pat Race.
“There had to be motivations here. And it certainly appears, given the timing and the structure, that this was done to reap a tax benefit,” said Kendall. “Depending on Mr. Mathias’ other income, it could be a $25,000 deduction for all I know.”
The report concluded that Mathias knew that his contribution “would be repurposed to support” the ballot group. State law bans individuals from making campaign contributions “anonymously, using a fictitious name, or using the name of another.”
Staff concluded that the ballot group violated state law by failing to report that the contributions came directly from Mathias, and Mathias himself violated the law by failing to report his contributions accurately.
APOC staff also found that because the church had specifically advocated on its website in support of the ballot measure to repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting, the church should have filed regular financial statements with the state.
Staff found that both the Ranked Choice Education Association and a separate entity called Alaskans for Honest Government “utilized their websites to showcase” materials associated with the Alaska repeal effort that are “clearly supporting” the petition booklet signature gathering effort. Such actions mean both organizations should have reported their spending and funding sources to the state.
The ballot group, called Alaskans for Honest Elections, has been actively gathering signatures for several months, with the goal of filing them with the state in the coming months. In order for the question of repealing the voting system to appear before voters on the 2024 ballot, the group must collect at least 26,000 signatures by early next year, representing most of the state’s geographical regions.
The ballot measure group also violated state law, according to staff, by spending money on promoting their efforts before registering with the state. The group has already incurred several fines for failing to file reports on its funding sources and spending as required. Its leaders have said that’s because of their inexperience in handling ballot measures.
The investigation found that the ballot group, entity, and church all violated a law requiring political communications to be identified with the words “paid for by” followed by the name and address of those paying for the communication. All three violated that law at least some of the time since they were established.
APOC staff recommended that the ballot measure group be fined $10,120 for its violations. Staff recommended that the entity, Alaskans for Honest Government, be fined $3,085 for its violations. They recommended the largest fines for Mathias and the Washington-based church in connection with Mathias’ attempt to direct his contribution through a separate organization. The recommended fines were $22,500 for Mathias and roughly $20,000 for the Ranked Choice Education Association.
Kendall, the attorney who filed the complaint, said he hoped that the total fine would amount to $90,000 — equivalent to the amount Mathias had contributed.
It is ultimately up to the APOC commissioners to determine whether the individuals and groups named in the complaint are at fault, and how much they should be fined. The maximum allowed fines for all groups and individuals combined, according to APOC staff, could be more than $300,000. The commissioners, who were appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, are set to meet later this month.
At that meeting, commissioners are also expected to discuss the findings tied with a separate complaint filed against Kelly Tshibaka, a conservative Republican who formed an anti-ranked choice voting group after losing a U.S. Senate bid to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. An attorney for Tshibaka said last month that if the commissioners find Tshibaka at fault for failing to meet state reporting requirements, as APOC staff recommended, Tshibaka would appeal the decision in court.