Lack of training led to election snafus
Problems with voting procedures in a couple rural areas during Alaska’s Aug. 16 primary election likely stem from a lack of training for election workers, Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke said during a legislative hearing on the issue.
Retiring Chugiak Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze held a State Affairs Committee hearing Aug. 29 in which a group of primarily Republican legislators questioned Bahnke about vote totals that seemingly don’t add up in primaries that could go a long way in shaping House control for the coming years.
Bahnke said the division contracted with the Juneau public broadcasting station KTOO to use its equipment to provide videoconference training for some election workers in an effort to save money and abide by travel restrictions imposed by Gov. Bill Walker while the state fights through multi-billion-dollar budget deficits.
The six sessions of videoconference training saved the state about $225,000, she said. As of late Aug. 26, which is the most recent election result available from the division, state House hopeful Democrat Dean Westlake led District 40 incumbent Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, by 21 votes, or a 1.3 percent margin. A total of 1,617 votes were cast in the primary election for the massive district that covers the North Slope and much of Northwest Alaska.
Voters in the Kobuk River village of Shungnak were reportedly given two ballot cards, one each for the Republican and Democratic primaries, but they should have gotten only one. The Division of Elections reported 50 voters with 100 cards cast.
Westlake, who is from the Kobuk area, won the Shungnak precinct 48-2. Bahnke said the division was made aware that Shungnak voters were given both ballots the day after the election when the precinct chair reported results to the Nome office.
Alaska has open primary elections that allow voters registered with either party to vote in the primary of their choosing. Voting in both party primaries is prohibited. There was no Republican primary candidate for the House District 40 seat.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, who oversees elections in the state, appointed Bahnke to her post last October.
Prior to 2016, training was typically conducted in regional hub communities prior to each election. State law requires election workers to receive training before each election.
This year, there was no in-person training in the District 40 communities of Barrow and Kotzebue, according to Bahnke.
She said it has become obvious some of the nearly 1,600 election workers the state employs did not participate in this year’s round of election prep and the division needs to refocus its efforts on educating workers in the northern district prior to the general election.
“While we try in earnest to ensure that our election workers are prepared, sometimes they don’t attend (training) and there’s really no ramifications if they don’t attend,” Bahnke acknowledged.
During the Aug. 29 hearing she said the District 40 results would probably be certified later that day. The results need to be certified by Sept. 2 to meet the statutory timeline.
Bahnke wrote in an Aug. 30 afternoon email to the Journal that the results hadn’t yet been certified because the division was still waiting to get election materials, including ballots, memory cards and registers from four precincts in the district.
“Due to the close race in House District 40 and (the) potential for a recount request, the State Review Board is working to certify those results as soon as election materials arrive,” she wrote.
A losing candidate or a group of 10 voters in the district can request a recount within five days of the election review. The state picks up the tab for the recount if the margin is 20 vote or less or less than 0.5 percent of all votes cast.
If a recount is requested and the margin is greater than 20 votes, the request must include a $750 deposit for a House district recount. Nageak and Westlake could not be reached for comment in time for this story.
In the Western Alaska House District 38 primary, 215 registered voters in the Newtok precinct cast 220 ballot cards, according to the unofficial election results.
“That’s some spirited patriotism,” State Affairs chair Stoltze commented.
Democrat candidate for House District 38 Zach Fansler beat out incumbent Democrat Rep. Bob Herron by nearly a 15 percent margin.
Despite both being Democrats, Nageak and Herron caucus with the Republican-led House Majority, a common practice among rural Democrats to gain committee appointments and leverage on budget items.
Bahnke said “data entry mistakes” that appear to have led to the Newtok irregularity and the Chefornak precinct reporting 105 percent voter turnout are being corrected by the review board.
The review board consists of 10 Juneau residents, two from each party and six undeclared voters, according to Bahnke.
“If there were violations of law by election workers I don’t think they were intentional, but I think they were clearly from a lack of training and communication,” Stoltze said. “But nonetheless, it appears mistakes were made.”
Legislative Legal Services attorney Alpheus Bullard testified to the committee that state courts —if a contested election gets that far — try “to honor voter intent, first and foremost.”
However, the District 40 situation seems to be a rare one.
“This is a novel situation in Alaska and I haven’t found another example of voters being supplied with two primary ballots in a very close election so I don’t know how a court would come down in this instance,” Bullard said.
Bahnke added the division could do a better job educating voters about the two-ballot system in primaries, is going to reconvene its regional supervisors before the general election for a post-primary briefing and is considering holding training at the October Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks.
Outgoing Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire commended Bahnke for taking questions from the committee while the division is facing challenges but added if the District 40 results are certified as they stand the impact on voter confidence would be “devastating and probably not recoverable for generations.”
For her part, Bahnke said, “I’m committed to getting this right.”