ACLU, Anchorage investigate ballot shortage during municipal election

A shortage of ballots in Tuesday's municipal election led to chaos and dissatisfaction among voters at polling places around town and has spurred a review by the city attorney to see whether the problems impact the validity of the election.

Some voters said they scurried from polling place to polling place trying to find a ballot. Some gave up.

How many polling stations ran out of ballots, at least temporarily? That's not yet known. The extent of the shortage, and its effect on the election, still was being assessed as of Wednesday evening, City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein said. The clerk's office runs municipal elections.

Officials say they believe everyone should have had a chance to vote, though they might have had to wait for city workers to ferry ballots or go to another polling spot.

"We were all driving ballots out as fast as we could," said Gruenstein. "I don't think there's any irregularities there. Because we were on everything."

Tuesday's election included votes for mayor, school board and a hotly contested and emotional gay-rights ballot measure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska also is looking into voter concerns and has established a hot line, 263-2015, for people to call in with issues. The ACLU is gathering information to determine whether it needs to take action, said executive director Jeffrey Mittman, a supporter of the gay-rights measure, which failed.

"We want to be aware of whether there were irregularities to the extent that voters were disenfranchised," he said.

So far, there's no evidence the election should be ruled invalid, said municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler.

"We'll go through the process of the review and advise the clerk's office and the Assembly accordingly," he said.

City officials couldn't say whether bad information put out by opponents of the gay-rights measure, telling people they could register to vote on Tuesday then cast a ballot, played a role. That's not the focus of the review, officials said.

None of the contests were close, meaning even if some people were unable to vote, the outcome likely didn't change, Wheeler said.

"At this point, we're just trying to get a handle on the election," Gruenstein said. "We had allegations of all kinds of things."

The clerk's office is examining each precinct to figure out which ones ran out of ballots and how each precinct handled the shortage.


Overall, the city had plenty of ballots -- almost 143,000 -- for a turnout that Gruenstein said could be "unprecedented." The city charter requires it to print enough ballots for 70 percent of the registered voters, and it did, she said. Not all the ballots were distributed to polling stations because some went to absentees or for early voting, she said.

On Tuesday, nearly 55,000 ballots were run through voting machines, representing about 27 percent of the registered voters. Many more ballots were cast, but the city can't say just how many yet, Gruenstein said. The 55,000 figure doesn't include thousands of absentee ballots or those of people who voted early or on a questioned ballot. The count also doesn't include votes on paper sample ballots, which were used when polling places ran out of ballots on hard card stock. Those paper ballots can't be fed into the voting machines.

People whose name for whatever reason isn't on the printed voter roll vote questioned ballots, which are put into envelopes with their name, address and identifying information on the outside. They are only counted if the city Election Commission determines the voter is qualified.

There were an unusual number of questioned ballots on Tuesday, Gruenstein said. Some Facebook posts -- she wouldn't say whose -- told voters they could vote in any precinct. Many people in fact voted in the wrong precinct on a questioned ballot, she said. That drained polling places of ballots that could have been used by people who live in the precinct, she said.

For instance, the city initially provided 800 ballots to a polling place at the Anchorage School District offices in the Boniface Mall that normally sees about 500 voters. That wasn't enough.

"They called for and received another 150," Gruenstein said. And when those ran out, polling workers turned to paper sample ballots, a standard procedure, she said.


Of the ballots counted Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly rejected the gay-rights ballot initiative, and endorsed Mayor Dan Sullivan for a second term.

In a written statement issued Wednesday, the One Anchorage Campaign, which pushed for passage of the gay-rights measure, Proposition 5, said, "While the vote totals released to date indicate that Prop 5 did not receive sufficient votes to become law, we know our long-term journey towards full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Alaskans will one day -- and soon -- become a reality."

The group said it was monitoring vote-counting.

"We understand that there are thousands of ballots that have not yet even been counted, and additionally that Anchorage voters have expressed concerns with the conduct of the election," the group said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the leader of the opposition to Prop. 5 said "we had common sense on our side, and it resonated with voters."

Jim Minnery, head of the Protect Your Rights -- Vote No on Prop. 5 group, wrote that the measure's defeat "means Anchorage remains a free city, where most people practice 'authentic' tolerance. Authentic tolerance means we don't try to use the force of law to coerce people into endorsing behavior or viewpoints they disagree with.

Minnery also said he had to eat "humble pie" over an e-mail he sent out Tuesday afternoon telling people on his list that they could register at the polls Tuesday and vote immediately. The information was also posted on the group's Facebook page.

"Did you know that people can register and vote at the same location and it doesn't even have to be at their precinct location?" Minnery wrote in his e-mail. " PLEASE take a few minutes now and call or text or e-mail ONE MORE PERSON and remind them to get to any polling station to cast their NO vote on Prop. 5."

That information on same-day registration was wrong, he acknowledged Wednesday in another mass e-mail. Someone had asked him whether registering and voting on Election Day was possible. He said he checked with the city clerk's office and was told it was allowed as long as the person had lived in Anchorage at least 30 days.

Not true. Newly registered voters are allowed to cast questioned ballots, but they won't count, Gruenstein said. She said she asked Minnery who he talked to and he didn't have a name.

People must be registered to vote in the city at least 30 days before the election to have their vote counted, the clerk said. So why did they get to vote? The city wants to be cautious, Gruenstein said. "It's always our rule that anybody who shows up gets to cast a ballot and it's up to the Election Commission to reject or accept that ballot," she said.

In February, Minnery sent out a different message, reminding people they needed to be registered by March 4 in order to vote, which was true.

Some speculated that Minnery's more recent message caused a surge of unqualified voters and drained precincts of ballots.

"It's hard to imagine, let alone implement, that kind of monumental scheme," Minnery said in Wednesday's e-mail.

The city hasn't yet tallied how many of Tuesday's voters registered that day. A statement from the clerk's office that just 121 of the questioned ballots were from newly registered voters was preliminary. The figure could be much higher, Gruenstein said.

Next Wednesday, the city Election Commission is scheduled to make final decisions on whether certain absentee and questioned ballots should be counted, and then remaining ballots will be tallied, Gruenstein said.

The count may take a couple of days, she said.

To read more, visit Theriault contributed to this story.