The Alaska commission charged with overseeing campaign laws has delayed decisions that could impact the fate of an effort to repeal the state’s ranked-choice voting system.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission gave itself a six-week extension, allowing commissioners until Jan. 5 to issue decisions that were originally due Sunday, on whether several groups opposing ranked-choice voting had violated Alaska’s campaign ethics laws.
Alaskans for Better Elections, a group that advocates in favor of ranked-choice voting, had originally filed two complaints in July, alleging that opponents of Alaska’s new voting system had flouted campaign ethics regulations, including by forming a church through which funding was funneled for a ballot initiative meant to repeal the state’s ranked-choice voting and open primaries system.
The complaints could carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the ballot group and its main funder, Anchorage minister Art Mathias, who has donated at least $90,000 through the church. But a leader of the ballot group, Phillip Izon, said Tuesday that the group could finish gathering signatures for its ballot initiative by early January — before the commission reaches its decision.
State law requires the commissioners to reach their decision within 10 days of holding a hearing on a complaint. The hearings on the complaints were held Nov. 16. In orders issued Monday, the commission said “unusual circumstances require more time.”
The commission states that “the primary reason for this extension is the large volume of material and the complexity of the matters heard at the meeting. Secondary reasons include intervening holidays and office closures due to weather and resulting building damage at the Department of Law.”
Asked about the closure, Department of Law spokesperson Patty Sullivan said that a water line broke in the downtown Anchorage building that houses the department on Nov. 20. Since then, department “employees who are eligible can telework,” Sullivan said in an email.
Scott Kendall, the Anchorage attorney who filed the original complaints on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, said he didn’t understand the delay.
“If I was a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I’d think to myself, ‘Oh, so (Attorney General) Treg Taylor wants to give these guys a break until they have to have their signatures in,’” said Kendall.
“It’s very strange. It violates their statutes, but also they’re the ones in charge of their statutes,” Kendall said.
By early January, Izon said his group plans to submit the necessary 26,000 signatures to put the question on the 2024 ballot of returning to the state’s former voting system, including partisan primaries and pick-one general elections. The current voting system was narrowly adopted through a separate ballot initiative in 2020, and first used in 2022.
Izon has repeatedly asserted his efforts to overturn Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system are nonpartisan, though the effort’s supporters are primarily Republicans, who point to losses by conservative Republicans in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House race as reasons for opposing the system.
Izon said Tuesday that the group has already gathered over 30,000 signatures — primarily in the Mat-Su and Kenai regions — but is still gathering signatures in Anchorage and rural Alaska to meet the required thresholds for geographic distribution of signatories.
According to the most recent campaign finance report, the ballot group had just $210 in the bank as of the end of September. But on Tuesday, Izon said the group — which had previously relied only on volunteers — had recently begun paying signature gatherers. The group also planned to launch an ad campaign in December to boost signature gathering, he said. Izon said the paid signature gathering and ad campaign were funded through an additional payment of $30,000 from the anti-ranked choice church formed by Izon and Mathias.
Regardless of the commission’s decision on the complaint filed against Izon, Mathias and their organizations, Izon said they plan to shut down the ballot group “at the end of the year.”
Izon said it “was always the plan” for the ballot group to shut down once enough signatures were gathered. At that point, he said another organization could form to continue advocating for the repeal effort ahead of the 2024 election.
Shutting down the organization could make it difficult to enforce fines imposed on it, Kendall said.
While the delay in the commission’s decision on the complaint means the group can continue gathering signatures without the threat of imminent fines, Izon said he would have preferred for the complaint to “be resolved a long time ago.”
“We could have appealed it if necessary,” he said.