Judge upholds fines levied against ranked choice opponents for campaign finance violations

An Alaska judge on Friday largely upheld fines levied against groups seeking to repeal Alaska’s open primaries and ranked choice voting system.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission, a campaign finance watchdog, fined several groups seeking to repeal the voting system by ballot measure a total of more than $94,000 earlier this year for failing to adhere to the state’s disclosure requirements.

The leaders of the movement seeking to repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting system have been dogged by complaints and legal battles since the movement came together shortly after the November 2022 election.

A ballot group, religious organization and the ballot group’s primary sponsor appealed the fines in state court earlier this year.

The ballot group, Alaskans for Honest Elections, submitted thousands of signatures earlier this year to the state Division of Elections to put the question of repealing Alaska’s open primaries and ranked choice voting on the 2024 ballot. The voting system, known also as final-four, is said to favor centrist candidates who can work across party divisions and appeal to a wider swath of voters. But opponents say the system is confusing and disfavors traditional candidates who appeal to a partisan base.

Most of the ballot group’s funding — used to cover the cost of signature gathering and related expenses — came through a tax-exempt religious organization called the Ranked Choice Education Association formed by Anchorage insurance agent and minister Arthur Mathias in 2022.

Mathias donated $90,000 to the ballot group by funneling it through the Ranked Choice Education Association.


The public offices commission concluded last year that the ballot group and the religious organization that funded it failed to register and report their activities as required by state law. The ballot group also failed to accurately identify its top sponsors as required by law.

[Ranked-choice voting has challenged the status quo. Its popularity will be tested in November.]

Mathias, the Ranked Choice Education Association and Alaskans for Honest Elections argued in their appeal that the reporting requirements violate free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They also argued that a state prohibition on funneling contributions through an intermediary to conceal the identity of the contribution did not apply to a ballot initiative campaign. Mathias argued that his penalties should have been reduced.

In a ruling issued Friday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Laura Hartz disagreed on all accounts, finding that the commission was largely correct in applying the fines.

Hartz found that the commission incorrectly dismissed concerns over an anonymous $2,358 cash contribution to the ballot group. State law prohibits cash contributions in excess of $100 and requires anonymous contributions to be forfeited to the state. Hartz ordered the commission to issue penalties over the religious organization’s failure to disclose the identity of the cash contributors.

The judge ultimately reduced Mathias’ penalty by less than $1,000 to account for the anonymous cash donation, which the commission had originally attributed to Mathias.

Mathias did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Neither did his lawyer, former Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.

Alaskans for Better Elections, a group that advocates in favor of ranked choice voting and filed the original complaint against the ranked choice opponents, also appealed the commission’s fines, asking for increased fines against Mathias and the religious organization through which he funneled his contribution. Hartz denied that request.

The fines are just one legal battle being fought by opponents of Alaska’s voting system. On Monday, a trial is set to begin in a lawsuit brought by supporters of the voting system against the state for certifying the ballot measure despite what the supporters say is evidence that some of the required 26,000 signatures were gathered in violation of state laws. Mathias, along with other organizers of the ballot initiative Phillip Izon and Jamie Donley, have filed as intervenors in the case to defend their work.

The case was brought by several Alaska voters represented by Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall, one of the primary architects of the 2020 ballot initiative that initially put in place ranked choice voting. Kendall also filed the original campaign finance complaint against the ranked choice opponents that led the public offices commission to levy fines against the opponents.

Superior Court Judge Christina Rankin has already dismissed one claim brought by Kendall — that the Alaska Division of Elections erred when it allowed the ballot group to correct problems in several signature booklets after they were submitted.

Separately, Kendall is arguing that petition booklets including over 11,000 signatures include errors that can only be rectified by disqualifying the initiative from the 2024 ballot. According to court filings, problems include “defective signatures,” booklets “circulated improperly,” and “reckless, repeated and/or intentionally unlawful behavior” by booklet circulators, including by leaving signature booklets unattended or allowing them to be circulated by an individual other than the person who signed off on the booklet.

In a court filing, Clarkson, who represents Mathias, Izon and Donley, said the goal of the lawsuit is “to deprive Alaskans of the opportunity to once again vote on the new election system” and said the plaintiffs “threw out a morass of salacious allegations.”

“What the plaintiffs have found, however, is nowhere near what is necessary to disqualify 22AKHE from the ballot,” Clarkson wrote, referring to the initiative. Clarkson concluded that the deficiencies found by Kendall did not impact enough signatures to have the initiative disqualified.

Rankin is expected to rule on the case by the middle of July, leaving enough time for either party to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court before ballots for the November election are printed.

Kendall said Friday that an appeal to the Supreme Court was likely if the judge did not rule in his clients’ favor.

“The jurisprudence is often that courts should do everything they can to try to uphold the measure, just because of the value of direct democracy. But on the other hand, when it comes to candidates and other deadlines in elections, they have said, ‘No, 10 minutes too late is too late.’ They have said deadlines are binary,” Kendall said. “Our argument is that the Division of Elections on the one-year deadline did not have a complete petition.”


“It’s a unique enough issue that I think there’s a good chance that there’s an appeal on that,” Kendall said.

Meanwhile, groups are already active in campaigning both for and against the ballot initiative. The group campaigning for the ballot initiative to repeal ranked choice voting, called Yes on 2, is headed by Mikaela Emswiler, who helped collect signatures for the ballot initiative. But Izon, Mathias and other leaders of the signature gathering effort have not been involved in the campaign for the initiative.

A group opposing the initiative, called No on 2, is led by former state Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican. The group is focused on promoting Alaska’s open primaries, rather than ranked choice voting. Open primaries were pivotal in Alaska’s 2022 elections, allowing some candidates who were previously defeated in partisan primaries to advance handily to the general election.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.