The Alaska Observer
With the legislative session fully underway, most Alaskans have shifted out of campaign mode (dreading the ringing of the telephone and averting one's gaze from the television during back-to-back-to-back advertisements) and are now settling in to the more passive role of watching laws being made. But there are some issues that came up during last fall's campaign season that are the subject of bills currently before the Legislature. While I understand the reluctance to think about campaigns right now, some things need to be addressed this session, so problems don't recur next election season.
I must explain here that I worked on a statewide campaign for over a year leading up to last November's election. I also helped some friends who were running in legislative races. Once the election was over, it fell to me to monitor the counting of absentee and questioned ballots in one state House race, and also to act as an observer during the recounting of that House race and the contest for the U.S. Senate. As an attorney and a somewhat seasoned campaign worker who happens to live in Juneau, it made sense that I would end up with this task. What I was not prepared for were the details of how the recount actually proceeded from day to day, and - something which really came as a shock to me - the matter of who was going to pay for it.
When the recount began at the Southeast offices of the Division of Elections in the Mendenhall Mall, the place was swarming with people. Most of them were there with the volunteer group that had requested the recount, and they seemed very suspicious of the division's staff. I had a few people helping me on behalf of the candidate and party for whom I had worked, and we resigned ourselves to the long task ahead of us. I had no problem being there, but I suppose I assumed that my counterparts from other political teams would stick with it throughout the week. To my surprise, what began with a bang ended with a whimper. There was almost no one to be seen when the whole thing wrapped up five days later. And the results of the recount were so unimpressive, so strikingly similar to the initial vote counts, I guess I can see why people chose not to stick around. Nevertheless, noticing the elections workers there day in and day out, toiling away in rented space, cheerful and dedicated I just felt there was something wrong with the whole process.
The Alaska Elections Act as currently written requires that a bond be posted by a person requesting a recount if the race was tied, decided by 20 votes or less, or by a margin of a half a percent of the total votes cast. Under this statute, the state pays to recount tied or very close races. That makes sense, because there is a public benefit in making sure we know who won any given race, and it should be a public expense when it's a close call. But in the U.S. Senate race, the final count just wasn't that close. The amount of the bond that had to be posted - theoretically to cover the cost of the recount - was a mere $10,000, while the cost to the state was something like four times that. Senate Bill 66 and House Bill 87, introduced on behalf of the governor, will increase this bonding requirement to $50,000, a much more accurate prediction of the cost of a recount. If the actual cost is greater, then these bills would have the difference paid for by the requesting party, and if it is less, then the appropriate amount would be refunded.
I have no desire to suppress the people's right to monitor the integrity and accuracy of the voting process. I just don't want to see money wasted for recounts not clearly in the public interest. Some of those who had requested the recount afterwards stated they were glad to have helped test the voting machines used by the state. With all due respect to these persons, testing is something the Division of Elections had already done, and the recount was an expensive way to go about retesting the system. The governor is right to seek changes to the law so that only truly close races get recounted at public expense. The Legislature should pass his bills early this session, so the law is fixed as soon as possible.
Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.
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