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Anchorage officials investigate ballot shortage

Posted: April 5, 2012 - 12:12am

ANCHORAGE — Anchorage officials are investigating what went wrong in the local election Tuesday, when some precincts ran out of ballots, sending frustrated voters scrambling to other locations or perhaps not voting at all if they couldn’t wait for replacement ballots to arrive.

The city clerk’s office said Wednesday that at least 121 people who cast ballots also registered on the same day, bypassing the 30-day requirement. City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein said ineligible votes will be deemed invalid.

“We tell all our poll workers not to turn anybody away,” Gruenstein said. “We let people vote, but it doesn’t mean their vote will count.”

The municipal attorney’s office is assessing the impact on the validity of the election if the ballot shortage led to voter disenfranchisement, officials said. Many unknowns remain, including the number of people turned away from their precincts or the total number of questioned ballots, which along with mailed absentee and other ballots, have not been tallied, Gruenstein said.

“We feel terrible,” Gruenstein said of the shortage, which she called unprecedented.

The ballot shortage led to some people voting on sample ballots. A significant number of others voted questioned ballots because they voted at precincts not assigned to them, officials said. That then led to precincts running out of special identifying envelopes, which also were later replaced.

Poll worker Katie Portlock said the scene at her midtown precinct was chaotic, especially in the hour before polls closed. She said people were frustrated and angry at the process, including some who had cast their votes on sample ballots.

“It was absolute madness,” Portlock said. “As someone who cares about the integrity of the election, I was very disappointed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said Wednesday it has created a hotline for people wanting to share information about the election process. The goal is to determine whether the organization will take action in the matter.

“The fundamental right for every voter to have her or his vote be counted is essential to the democratic process,” the ACLU said in a statement.

It’s unclear how many voters responded to an erroneous campaign by a group opposed to Proposition 5, a failing ballot initiative that called for legal protections for gay and transgender residents.

The opposition group — Protect Your Rights, Vote No On 5 — said Tuesday that people could register and vote on the same day.

Group chairman Jim Minnery has said the message was a misunderstanding with the city clerk’s office. He did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

It’s too early to say what the next step will be for One Anchorage, the group behind the initiative. The interim results showing the initiative losing 58 percent to 42 percent was disappointing, said spokesman Trevor Storrs.

“However, we are very much aware that there are still thousands of ballots that have yet to be counted,” he said. “The likelihood of us winning is very slim. However, what we want to do before any decisions are made is allow the process to be finished.”

In the mayoral race, Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Honeman was trailing incumbent Dan Sullivan 38 to 59 percent.

Honeman’s campaign is gathering stories from voters to gauge the extent of people affected, said Mike Gutierrez, campaign manager for Honeman, a former police officer. For now, no option including a legal challenge is “off the table,” Gutierrez said.

“If there’s one person who was disenfranchised, then that’s not acceptable,” he said. “If there were hundreds or thousands, then that’s a serious, serious problem.”

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