Words with friends: Anchorage clerks arrange Assembly election

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Anchorage voters will elect five of the city’s 11 Assembly members this April. Filing for those races opened Friday. City officials have devised an ingenious ritual to keep elections as fair and impartial as possible.
The Clerk's office isn't exactly sure how long the Scrabble ritual has been going on. Barbara Jones guestimates the tiles are from a set that's about ten years old. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
The Clerk’s office isn’t exactly sure how long the Scrabble ritual has been going on. Barbara Jones guestimates the tiles are from a set that’s about ten years old. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
City Clerk Barbara Jones is surrounded by staff as she pulls wooden Scrabble tiles from a jar at random.
“We think it’s an old set.” Jones says.
This is how the city sets the order for candidate names to appear before voters on election day in the interest of an impartial ballot. The clerk’s office want that name order to be random, so each year all 26 letters of the alphabet get tossed together and ceremoniously rearranged before the watchful, neutral gaze of the city ombudsman. As well as a smattering of reporters.
You might be thinking, ‘why does this matter?’  It’s because alphabetical ordering brings a little bit of bias. The order of where a candidates name appears on a ballot ends up influencing election results. Not a ton–but enough to matter to academics, politicians, and pollsters. So the city’s clerks have had to come up with a way to make sure Candidate A doesn’t get an undeserved advantage over Candidate Z when a voter’s eyes scan the ballot.
“We hope that people go to the name that’s the best qualified candidate.” says Jones.
Almost half of the city’s Assembly seats are up for election, spanning all of the municipality except for the Downtown district. The local filing period lasts until February 12th. And though we won’t officially know who is on the ballot until candidates have submitted that local paper-work with the Clerk’s office, a separate filing process through the state’s Public Office Commission gives a picture of who intends to run. District races in South, East, and West Anchorage are all competitive. Just one person has filed to run for veteran Assembly Chair Dick Traini’s mid-town seat. And so far Amy Demboski is running to keep her District 2 seat in Chugiak/Eagle-River unopposed.
Voters elect their Assembly members on April 5th, alongside ballot measures on bonds and a marijuana sales tax.