Concerns about voters being turned away from the polls in the April 3 municipal election erupted Tuesday at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska last week called for the Assembly to hire a special counsel to investigate what went wrong and determine, perhaps through a survey of registered voters, how many were turned away or disenfranchised by widespread ballot shortages. On Tuesday, the ACLU released sworn statements from voters and poll workers about ballot shortages and confusion at the polls.
At Tuesday's meeting, Elvi Gray-Jackson introduced a measure to hire an independent special counsel, and said the time to act was now. While Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler is evaluating the election, he works for the mayor, not the Assembly, which is responsible for election oversight. No municipal attorney could be expected to do that, she said.
"We need to have legal assessment on this issue that is fair," Gray-Jackson said.
But her proposal failed 7-4. Some Assembly members who voted "no" said they liked the idea but wanted more information first to better direct the investigation.
Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander announced the Assembly would have a work session on the election Friday and would hear from the city clerk as well as the six-person Election Commission.
The clerk's office, which runs the elections, has said that 53 of 121 precincts at least temporarily ran short on ballots, based on a preliminary review. The shortages frustrated voters who drove from polling place to polling place in search of a way to choose their mayor and pick sides in the fractious gay rights debate.
One Assembly member said during a break that the election irregularities may have been severe enough to justify a redo.
"That's my gut feeling," said Harriet Drummond, who chairs the Assembly elections and ethics committee. She said she's also heard of problems with improperly addressed absentee ballots as well as the ballot shortage. In addition, many long-term poll workers resigned when the city hired a contractor to handle their pay. They didn't like being asked to fill out a lot of paperwork and were being paid on plastic cards, which didn't sit well with some of the older workers, Drummond said.
"There's so many errors. There's no way to fix a specific point of blame at this point in time until we have answers to all these questions," Drummond said.
A number of upset voters showed up at the meeting. Some clapped when ACLU executive director Jeff Mittman explained his group's concerns.
WHERE WERE THE BALLOTS?
One of the ACLU-solicited sworn statements came from Collin Smith, a polling place chairman in East Anchorage. By 6:30 p.m. on Election Day, he was out of ballots. He'd started the day with too few, he said, and called three times for more.
No luck. When no additional ballots arrived, Smith said he temporarily closed the East Anchorage United Methodist ballot box and was told to shoo voters to another precinct.
"Overall, voters were very upset and yelled at me for not having adequate ballots," Smith wrote in his affidavit distributed Tuesday by the ACLU.
Other polling places closed early, too. Some poll managers turned to sample ballots. Some directed voters to the airport or the university. There was no citywide fallback plan, according to the ACLU.
The Election Commission is expected to announce the number of eligible absentee and questioned ballots that remained to be counted, with the count beginning Friday.