Supreme Court hears arguments on Anchorage mayoral election

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments on whether to overturn the results of last year's election of Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

The mayoral election was on the same April 2003 ballot as a proposition that lowered the threshold by which a mayor can win without a runoff election from 50 percent to 45 percent of the vote.

Voters passed the proposition, which went into effect with that election. Begich collected 45.03 percent of the vote.

Those wanting to overturn the results say the ballot was flawed, confusing and misleading.

"He's illegitimately in office and doesn't belong in office," Daniel DeNardo, who was one of 10 candidates who lost to Begich, told the five court justices Tuesday.

Begich said the lawsuit is just politics.

"It's a group of people who didn't want me elected," Begich said. "It's a way to play politics. They change the deck to suit them. That's the blunt truth. They will never acknowledge that."

Attorney Ken Jacobus, who represents DeNardo and Deborah Luper, an aide to Anchorage Assemblyman Dan Sullivan, filed the original complaint in a state Superior Court shortly after the election. DeNardo and Luper sought a mayoral runoff immediately after the 2003 election.

Jacobus said the issue before the court is whether the mayor should be elected by a majority of the voters. He said the case is not about Begich but about how a mayor should be elected in the future, he said.

He is appealing a Superior Court ruling from June 2003 that said the election was valid.

DeNardo claims voters did not know that they were voting to lower the victory threshold for the same election in which they were choosing a mayor. He says a community has a right to a mayor elected by a majority.

In oral arguments Tuesday, city attorney Fred Boness said the Assembly passed an ordinance with the ballot title and language nine months before the election, leaving plenty of time for public examination.

"All you had to do it read it," he said.

There's a public benefit in keeping the government stable by upholding the election results, he said.

The lawsuit also claims that the ballot title improperly advocated the proposition because it said the cost of runoff elections would be reduced.

That was a true statement, Boness said, because fewer elections cost less money.

Begich met the 45 percent majority requirement by 17 votes. Those scant votes could have changed if Begich's name hadn't appeared first on the ballot, Jacobus said.

This "positional bias" gave Begich an unfair advantage, Jacobus said.

But the state determined that it is constitutional, as long as the names are ordered by a random selection, to print all ballots with the same order of names.

The city has printed multiple ballots before, with rotated candidate names in the top position. But it costs more to do it that way.

Jacobus said the additional expense is justified by the fairness of rotating names. He said his goal is to get name rotation on future ballots.

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