APOC investigating dividend poll

Complaint alleges survey was illegal campaining

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2000

The Wording behind the poll

This is the script pollsters used before the statewide election last September:

Hi, I'm calling from R.T. Nielsen & Co.

Are you a registered voter?

Could I ask you a few short questions about the Sept. 14 Special Election?

(If asked who is behind the poll - Public Policy Council.)

On Sept. 14, you'll be asked how you feel about using a small portion of (Alaska) Permanent Fund earnings to pay for essential government services, like education and public safety. This would not affect the permanent fund itself.

Voting YES means saving the dividend program. Your dividend check would be $1,700 for the next two years, decline to about $1,340 in the third year, and then grow again from that point on.

And most importantly, voting YES means no new taxes will be needed.

If the special election were held today, would you vote YES or NO?

If NO:

Would it change your mind if you knew that voting NO is more likely to result in the end of your dividend check than voting YES?

Would you say that the permanent fund dividend check is absolutely necessary to your family, somewhat necessary or not really necessary?

The phone rang. Within minutes, Juneau's Dennis Harris was hopping mad.

He'd just been told that if he voted no on Sept. 14, 1999, that his Alaska Permanent Fund dividend would disappear.

``I was extremely angry,'' Harris said Friday. ``I was particularly irritated that they were campaigning and calling it a poll.''

Almost 26,000 other Alaskans were asked questions similar to those that so harried Harris. Some of them phoned the Alaska Public Offices Commission to complain. But Harris took the next step, filing an official objection with APOC. He charges the poll, taken between Aug. 21 and Sept. 1, was a campaign ploy, and the person paying for it should have been identified by those making the calls with a ``paid for by'' disclaimer.

The poll, Harris said, is illegal. Also, he asserts, backers of a yes vote didn't report paying for the poll properly. After hearing the script accompanying this story, Harris said that it wasn't the one used on him.

``I'll say that under oath,'' he said.

Jenifer Kohout, assistant director of APOC, said the investigation is on. If the commission agrees with Harris, the agency could demand a $50 fine for each day the violations continued.

Kohout said late March would be the soonest the commission would get a staff report on the matter.

Cheryl Frasca was the treasurer of the Vote Yes! Committee, the group organized to promote a yes vote on the advisory ballot measure. The measure asked Alaskans if they would allow some of the earnings of the fund to be used to set up an endowment account to help pay for the cost of government services.

Voters killed the idea, with 84 percent voting no.

There are many kinds of polls, said Frasca. Some are scientific. Some are designed to figure out how people were planning to vote and to find out how those people were responding to specific messages.

She said the poll was the brainchild of a subcontractor of Northwest Strategies, Advertising Design Services in Anchorage. The poll was performed by R.T. Nielson Co. of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tim McKeever, a lawyer working for Advertising Design, wrote a response to Harris' allegations.

He wrote that the poll was intended to determine how supporters of the ballot measure would frame their debates and plan their advertising. The idea, he wrote, was to gather information, not advocate a yes or no vote.

``We think that it would be a mistake for the Alaska Public Advocacy Committee to say that every poll that was taken came with a requirement that there be a disclaimer saying who paid for each and every question ... that would be a impractical way to conduct polling,'' McKeever said.

Harris said the main point behind his complaint is to force APOC to make a ruling in a fuzzy area of campaign law. Campaign regulations make it clear that advocacy-style polls are illegal for candidates, but not so clear when it comes to ballot initiatives. He said he wants clarity now ``so nobody else can do this again.''

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