Report on Muni Election Debacle Blames Complacency, Inexperience

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA - Anchorage

The long-awaited report by an independent investigator on the troubled April 3 Municipal Election in Anchorage is out. It blames the election debacle, including widespread ballot shortages that kept an estimated hundreds of voters from casting ballots, on bad management at the Clerk’s Office.

The investigator hired by the Assembly says he found no evidence of any intent by Municipal employees or election workers to unfairly influence the outcome of the election. Instead he finds two main things lead to problems on election night: what he calls a “hands off management style” by the Municipal Clerk and a deputy clerk with limited experience. Attorney Dan Hensley, a retired Alaska Superior Court judge issued the report. He did not return phone calls by deadline. Assembly Chair Ernie Hall says he was not surprised that most of the blame fell on the former Municipal Clerk, Barbara Gruenstein.

“Barbara had shared with me that she hadn’t been involved in this election as she should have been. If she had been more on top of what was going on it probably would have prevented it from happening,” Hall said.

The Anchorage Assembly hired Hensley in May. The deputy Clerk, Jacqueline Duke, was fired May 9. Gruenstein gave her resignation May 29. The report confirms that 65 out of 121 polling places ran out of ballots and that as early 2 p.m. on Election Day election workers were calling with concerns about running short. Mayor Dan Sullivan easily won reelection and none of the races were close enough to be reversed by ballot shortages. The report suggests the Municipal Clerk’s office staff was stretched thin on Election Day, but does not blame staff cuts.

“He didn’t think that understaffing was what caused the problem. He thought that having the additional part-time help would probably have made a difference. But as far as the election going awry because of understaffing, he didn’t think that was true,” Hall said.

Hensley notes that close to 300 voters either left in frustration or were sent to other polling places because of the ballot shortage. He acknowledges that an email sent by Jim Minnery with the Alaska Family Council, exacerbated the ballot shortage problem, but said it was not the primary cause for the shortage. That email incorrectly advised constituents that they could register at the polls on Election Day to vote against Proposition 5, a ballot initiative to strengthen the Municipality’s Equal Rights Act. Hall says the Assembly is considering making such interference in elections a punishable crime.

“It’s not currently but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be made so. It would be a misdemeanor of some sort. We’ve had conversations about it. You know what the probability of this might be in the future and it’s still a topic of conversation with the election committee,” Hall said.

Hensley made six recommendations to the Assembly in his report including more hands on management, better training for election workers and more assembly oversight of the clerk’s office. But he did not recommend any specific plan on how to distribute the required ballots in the future.

“That was surprising to me. We just came out of an election that went badly. And it went badly because we didn’t have ballots in the right place,” Hall said.

Hall says he will push for a new distribution formula, despite the report. In conclusion Hensley writes, “This year’s ballot shortage was the combination of several events unlikely to occur in the same combination in the future, especially if other recommended changes are made in the municipal Clerk’s Office.”

In short, it was a perfect storm. Assembly Chair Ernie Hall agrees.

“The longer it goes and everything is fine, everybody gets a little more complacent, a committee’s dropped here, a committee’s dropped there and then the perfect storm occurs. And you have to go back and you have to reassess and get municipal code changed and protocols put into place that hopefully you avoid this from ever happening again in the future,” Hall said.

There is an Anchorage Assembly work session to review the report on September 7.

Hensley is planning a follow up report in about two weeks. The Assembly agreed to pay Hensley up to $35,000 for the report.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.