An anti-ranked choice voting ballot group will be allowed to continue operating with no immediate consequences for alleged campaign ethics violations after a decision this week by the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
The commission held a hearing Wednesday to consider whether to expedite the adjudication of a complaint alleging that the ballot group was helped by an Anchorage church, in violation of campaign ethics rules and reporting requirements, as the group works to repeal Alaska’s voting system.
Without a decision to accelerate consideration of the complaint, the commission will take several months to determine whether the group has violated the law. By the time the commission rules on whether the law was violated, the group’s work will be done.
The group, Alaskans for Honest Elections, was formed late last year to collect signatures as part of an effort to repeal Alaska’s new voting system — itself adopted by ballot measure in 2020. The group’s goal is to gather and submit by early February a minimum of 26,000 signatures to get the repeal question on the 2024 ballot.
One of the group’s leaders, Phillip Izon, said last month that the group had launched an effort to pay signature gatherers because the group had yet to gather the minimum number of signatures needed in Anchorage. The complaint alleges that paid signature-gathering effort has violated the law — one in a string of alleged violations committed by anti-ranked choice activists.
In the complaint filed Monday, Alaskans for Better Elections — a group that advocates for the preservation of the voting system narrowly adopted by Alaskans in 2020 — alleged that the anti-ranked choice ballot group had violated the law by conducting its signature gathering activities from a building owned by Wellspring Ministries, an Anchorage Christian organization, without reporting Wellspring’s support as required by law.
Former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who represents the ballot group and its leaders, called the complaint a “distortion of facts, twisting of words to bend reality, half-truths, and misrepresentations.”
The President of Wellspring Ministries, Art Mathias, serves as one of the chairs of the ballot initiative and has been the main funder of the signature-gathering effort. He has spent at least $90,000 on the initiative through a Washington-based church he formed together with Izon called the Ranked Choice Education Association, according to reports filed with the state.
Mathias argued that the use of Wellspring’s building was legal because the space used for signature collection and tabulation had been leased to a fundraising company. The ballot group paid that company $15,000 — a payment that had been reported late last month. Mathias said Mikaela Emswiler, the owner of the fundraising company, had agreed to pay $300 for using Wellspring space for several hours per week. But Mathias said there was no written lease because the agreement had been made “verbally.” He also said Emswiler had yet to pay for her use of the space.
The commission ruled that “the violations alleged in this case do not warrant expedited consideration” and that the complaint will be considered during a hearing in February, after the group’s signature submission deadline.
Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall, who wrote the complaint on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, had argued during the hearing Wednesday that the complaint should be expedited because once the signatures are submitted to the state for tabulation, Alaskans who signed the initiative cannot remove their names — which will be publicly available — even if the commission ultimately finds that the group violated the law. Until the group submits the signatures, Alaskans can remove their name by filling out a form on the Division of Elections website.
Izon has said he plans to finish gathering signatures by January and dissolve the group after the signatures have been submitted. But the commission ordered the group on Wednesday not to dissolve “until his matter and other related matters have been resolved.”
During the hearing, Izon repeatedly interrupted proceedings. He interjected during Kendall’s comments and refused at one point to answer Kendall’s questions while testifying. In one instance, attorney John Ptacin, who had been appointed to oversee the hearing, instructed Izon to speak to Clarkson about his “conduct.”
“You’ve been interrupting this hearing. You’ve been talking to Mr. Mathias here throughout. It’s very distracting. Kevin, I want you to get these folks in line,” said Ptacin.
Izon said Thursday that the hearing had been “very contentious” and “not fun, to say the least,” but that ultimately he thought “the commission made the right decision.”
He said his group had already gathered 34,000 signatures and remained on track to submit its initiative to the state next month.