Supporters of Alaska’s voting system are alleging that its opponents have again violated the law in their quest to repeal the system by ballot initiative.
In a third complaint filed Monday by Alaskans for Better Elections to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, it alleges that opponents of ranked-choice voting are part of an “intentional conspiracy to violate the law” by not disclosing their funding and expenses, including the involvement of an Anchorage Christian organization called Wellspring Ministries.
Kevin Clarkson, a former Alaska attorney general who is representing the people and groups advocating for the repeal of ranked-choice voting, called the complaint “a salacious mash of contorted false allegations.”
The complaint asks the commission — responsible for enforcing the state’s campaign ethics laws — to force the ballot initiative leaders to pause their signature-gathering effort until they correct the alleged violations. The request comes just two months before the ballot initiative group must submit to the state at least 26,000 signatures from Alaska voters to put the question of repealing Alaska’s ranked-choice voting and open primaries on the 2024 ballot.
The ballot group, Alaskans for Honest Elections, has advocated since late last year for the repeal of Alaska’s new voting method — itself adopted by ballot measure in 2020. Leaders of the group say the system is confusing and works against conservative Republicans. One of those leaders is Art Mathias, the president of Wellspring Ministries, who has repeatedly claimed his tax-exempt religious organization is not involved in the political campaign he has led and funded.
The commission has already found the ballot group to have repeatedly violated state law by filing campaign finance reports late, incurring more than $2,000 in fines. The commission is currently considering whether to fine the leaders of the ballot group for failing to follow Alaska’s campaign ethics laws, in part by funneling their funds through a church incorporated in Washington called the Ranked Choice Education Association. The maximum fine for the alleged violations included in the original complaint — filed in July — could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A leader of the ballot group, Phillip Izon, has also filed a complaint against Alaskans for Better Elections, alleging it has violated reporting requirements. That complaint has yet to be considered by the commission.
The complaint filed Monday alleges that the anti-ranked choice voting ballot group has been using Wellspring Ministries to collect and tally signatures even as its leaders publicly insist that the church was not involved in their effort.
The complaint includes allegations that the group is “using Wellspring as an unreported base of operations for signature-gathering efforts.” The ballot group’s campaign finance reports do not include any payments to Wellspring for the use of its facility, or any in-kind contributions for the use of the space.
In two recorded conversations, a person gathering signatures for the ballot initiative tells a prospective signature gatherer that she had been using a building owned by Wellspring Ministries for signature collection and tallying.
Clarkson said that signature gatherer — Mikayla Emswiler — had paid Wellspring Ministries to rent space for her work. The ballot group paid Emswiler’s company — Top Fundraising Solutions, LLC — $15,000 on Nov. 13. Clarkson said that given that Emswiler paid the church for the space, and that the ballot group paid Emswiler, the use of the facility is “perfectly legal.”
The complaint alleges that an individual employed directly by the Wellspring Ministries, Kit Rittgers, was also involved in the signature collection effort. Clarkson said he believed the Wellspring employee had been paid separately by Emswiler for her work on the campaign.
The complaint also alleges that Emswiler had been involved in working for the campaign long before her work was reported, calling it an “apparent ‘shadow’ paid signature drive.” Clarkson did not deny that Emswiler had worked for the ballot initiative campaign long before that work had been reported to the commission, but said that would mean his clients’ only violation would be a late report.
“If that’s true, and I don’t know if that’s true or not, that would mean it was a late report. So — yippy skippy — a late report, for which APOC would then assess some fines. It’s not as if some massive crime is occurring,” said Clarkson.
Emswiler did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
According to the complaint, an individual named Gregory Lee called Emswiler after she posted on Facebook last month that she was “looking to hire signature gatherers to help with the petition drive.” In a recorded phone call, Emswiler told Lee that the group is paying $4 per signature, that she works “at Wellspring most days,” and that there are people at Wellspring who “would be able to hand out books” for signature collection.
Emswiler previously worked as a campaign staffer for Kelly Tshibaka, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2022, losing to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. After her loss, Tshibaka launched a separate group to advocate against ranked choice voting. In a separate complaint, Alaskans for Better Elections alleged Tshibaka’s group has directly supported the ballot initiative, a claim Tshibaka has denied.
Mathias, the Anchorage pastor who is the director of the ballot initiative, its main funder, and president of Wellsprings Ministries, testified before the commission about the lack of involvement by the church in the ballot initiative.
In a sworn affidavit prepared in response to previous complaints, Mathias said Wellspring Ministry “is not engaged in campaigning” for the ballot initiative and that it “has not and is not acting to promote or campaign for the ballot initiative. Mathias also says Wellspring Fellowship “is not campaigning” for the ballot initiative and the fellowship “has no direct interaction” with the ballot group. Mathias also said the building owned by Wellspring Ministry — where Lee met Emswiler to discuss signature gathering — “has nothing to do” with the ballot initiative.
The complaint alleges that the ballot group’s use of the Wellspring facility indicates both the group, Wellspring Ministries, and Emswiler did not accurately report their campaign activities, as required by law.
Churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations, like Wellsprings Ministries, are prohibited from participating in political campaign activity under federal law. But the Alaska Public Offices Commission does not have the authority to investigate potential violations of that law.
The complaint was submitted on an expedited basis, giving the commission — whose members are appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy — two days to schedule a hearing and determine whether the ballot group violated the law and whether signature gathering should be paused.