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Pruitt election court challenge centers on a late polling location change that allegedly disenfranchised voters

Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage is challenging his 11-vote election loss in court.
Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage is challenging his 11-vote election loss in court.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 4:44 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt’s court challenge of his 11-vote election loss is centered on a late-change to an East Anchorage polling location that allegedly disenfranchised voters. One voter testified in court about being impacted by that change.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Josie Garton threw out all but one of Pruitt’s complaints before the first evidentiary hearing began on Tuesday morning. The one complaint the court heard was about the polling location change for precinct 915.

Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Division of Elections, said on Wednesday that changing a polling location often occurs in the lead up to an election. On Tuesday, the court heard that 18 Anchorage polling locations were changed for the 2020 election.

The COVID-19 pandemic had meant election workers were busier than usual and it was too late to inform voters by mail of the change, but there were signs at the Muldoon Town Center that told voters to cast their ballots at Begich Middle School, Fenumiai said.

Under oath, Fenumiai also said that the information about the new polling location for precinct 915 was posted on the Division of Election’s website on the evening of Oct. 27. Voters could also call the Division of Elections to learn about the change for the Nov. 3 election.

The polling location for precinct 915 had changed to the Muldoon Town Center for the primary elections because Wayland Baptist University was unable to follow some COVID-19 safety procedures. The change for the general election to Begich Middle School was because the owner of Muldoon Town Center did not want to host two polling locations on Election Day, Fenumiai said.

Speaking via Zoom, Pruitt told the court on Tuesday that he was never told about the location change and that he had sent out mailers directing voters to Muldoon Town Center.

On Wednesday, Democratic Representative-elect Liz Snyder said under oath that she did not know about the polling location change until Pruitt’s lawsuit was filed.

Stacey Stone, Pruitt’s attorney, showed a Facebook post on Election Day from Snyder’s campaign which spoke about the Division of Elections posting incorrect polling location information for some East Anchorage voters. The post was made around an hour before polls closed, but it did not specifically mention precinct 915.

Pruitt’s lawsuit claims that the late polling place change for the general election meant some reliably Republican voters were unable to cast their ballots on Election Day.

The court heard testimony from one impacted voter: Mary Jo Cunniff, a realtor from House District 27, who said she went to vote at Wayland Baptist Academy early on Election Day. After some searching, she found a sign directing her to Begich Middle School.

The line was too long and Cuniff had to go to work. “I just kind of gave up and left,” she said.

Cuniff voted during the primaries after showing up at Wayland Baptist Academy and being redirected to Muldoon Town Center.

Randy Ruedrich, a former Alaska GOP chairman, did an analysis of voters from two adjoining precincts and estimated that 3.66% of registered voters from the 915 precinct didn’t show up on Election Day.

Attorneys for the state of Alaska questioned that evidence and asked if Ruedrich could show how the polling location change had led to lower turnout. Ruedrich would not discuss that.

On Wednesday, Ralph Townsend, the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, questioned the validity of Ruedrich’s testimony. Townsend said analyzing data from two precincts was insufficient to make any meaningful conclusions.

He also said that a professional statistical analysis should have considered that a relatively small drop in turnout was potentially due to chance. “This analysis doesn’t make the slightest attempt to undertake what would have been a rudimentary first step in any such analysis,” Townsend added.

When questioned by Stone, Townsend said that he was not an elections expert but he had taken some political science class as an undergraduate.

Garton’s order to dismiss on Tuesday stated that Pruitt would need to show that election officials had changed the polling location to influence voters in a particular way or that they were recklessly indifferent to the law’s noticing requirements. “The complaint alleges neither,” she said in her order.

After the second day of evidentiary hearings, Garton asked that closing arguments be submitted in writing by Thursday evening. She said that she will then hand down a decision “as soon as possible.”

The Alaska Supreme Court is set to hear a related recount appeal on Jan. 8. The justices could decide to hear Pruitt’s other allegations that were thrown out on Tuesday.

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