The Alaska Public Offices Commission says supporters of a 1999 ballot measure tried to influence voters with a poll, and will be fined for violating campaign disclosure laws.
The commission, meeting in Anchorage on Wednesday, voted 3-1 that the Vote Yes! Committee's poll of 26,000 voters statewide was intended to influence the outcome of the special election held Sept. 14, 1999. The poll wasn't illegal, but should have said who paid for it, the commission ruled.
The Vote Yes! Committee argued that it was just trying to gather information on how respondents felt about a proposed long-range fiscal plan ballot measure, and learn whether a specific message might change their votes.
It's the first time the commission has decided a poll was subject to disclosure laws. Juneau resident Dennis Harris, who filed the complaint with the commission, said he hoped it would set a precedent that would deter future users of such polls.
But pollsters are concerned that identifying who pays for polls would taint the results.
"Push polls," as they are sometimes called because they try to prod voters toward a particular response, aren't illegal.
But state law requires most communications intended to influence the outcome of an election, other than by an individual, must include the words "paid for by" followed by a name and address.
Harris said the pollster's phone call in late August 1999 clearly was intended to steer him toward voting for the ballot measure.
"I was very upset by the deceptive content of the phone call and that's what got me started on this in the first place," Harris said in an interview.
The Vote Yes! Committee favored passage of an advisory vote for a long-range fiscal plan for the state. The ballot question asked if a portion of Alaska Permanent Fund investment earnings should be used to help balance the state budget. Nearly 83 percent of voters said no in the special election.
The pollsters' script said:
"Voting 'yes' means saving the dividends program. ... And most importantly, voting 'yes' means no new taxes will be needed." Then the pollster asked how the respondent would vote.
If respondents said they were going to vote no, the pollster asked: "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'?"
Besides complaining about the poll's wording, Harris told the commission Wednesday that a poll of 26,000 people was a far larger sample than was needed to gather opinion.
In an interview, Anchorage-based pollster David Dittman said 500 respondents is enough for a good sample in a statewide poll.
Public Offices Commissioner Mark Handley agreed with Harris. "I think this was clearly intended from the get-go to influence the outcome of the election, to try to get people to vote yes on this," he said in the commissioners' discussion.
Commissioner Sheila Gallagher, who voted against Harris' complaint, said the panel needed more information about polls.
The commission's staff recommended the panel dismiss Harris' complaint. Staff investigator Belinda Davis said the poll didn't fall under any precedent for what has been considered an effort to influence the outcome of an election, and didn't rise to that level. She said such communications usually are marked by phrases such as "vote for..."
The poll was intended to help the Vote Yes! Committee prepare specific messages to persuade voters, but the poll itself wasn't intended to influence voters, said Anchorage attorney Timothy McKeever, who represented the Vote Yes! Committee, in its written response in January 2000 to Harris' complaint.
The Vote Yes! Committee contracted with Northwest Strategies, an Anchorage advertising agency, as its principal campaign consultant, McKeever said. The polling was subcontracted to R.T. Nielson Co., a national polling company in Salt Lake City, he said.
Kevin Bruce, president of Northwest Strategies, said today the commission's decision was "absurd." Saying who paid for a poll up front would taint its results, he said.
The Vote Yes! poll was no different from many polls that try to figure out what would bolster people's opinions or cause them to change their minds, Bruce said. That differs from push polling, in which the poll contains false and damaging statements about a candidate, he said.
The poll questioned so many people because the Vote Yes! Committee wanted the names of supporters, who would be urged to vote as election day approached, Bruce said.
Dittman, after seeing the script pollsters used with Harris, agreed it wasn't a push poll. The commission's decision could set a precedent that seriously restricted the kind of questions pollsters ask, he said.
But Dittman said it was improper for pollsters to gather information about individual responders and use it later, even to get out the vote.
The commissioners instructed its staff to report back in March on how it would fine the Vote Yes! Committee, which disbanded after the election and which had spent all but a few dollars of the approximately $693,000 it received in contributions.
The fines could be $50 for each day of polling, but it's not clear how the fines could be collected, said commission Director Brooke Miles.
The Vote Yes! Committee can appeal the decision in state Superior Court. Its attorney, McKeever, was not immediately available for comment.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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