Anchorage Assembly set to vote on election code changes at special meeting next week

Published: Dec. 22, 2021 at 12:30 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After hours of testimony and numerous amendments, members of the Anchorage Assembly did not vote on a set of proposed updates to the city’s election code during their regular Tuesday night meeting, but continued the ordinance that proposes the changes to a special meeting next week.

The ordinance was originally introduced in October and since the first round of public testimony on Dec. 14, the city elections team and assembly members incorporated suggestions and feedback into a new version of the ordinance, which was submitted to the addendum that Friday.

On Tuesday night, assembly members made several amendments to the measure after hearing public testimony, but did not finish. One of assembly member John Weddleton’s amendments was revised near the end of the meeting, and the assembly did not have time to discuss and vote on it before they had to adjourn at midnight. They will take the ordinance back up for final discussion and a vote on Tuesday, Dec. 28.

Many of the amendments made Tuesday attempted to deal with issues raised by the public about the proposed changes.

“Last week’s public testimony yielded feedback and suggestions concerning the section on observers, specifically the registration and training dates which has since been changed on the S version,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said. “Following last week’s public testimony, the clerk’s office election’s team held a two hour meeting last Thursday with election observers which resulted in these changes.”

LaFrance said the timeline for election observer registration was removed from the substitute version of the ordinance, and the timeframe for responding to registrations was changed to 48 hours in the observer handbook.

Most of the proposed changes to the election code are tweaks to definitions and clarifications of the code language. Reviewing the election code happens every year and is done to fix any issues and make the law, and election process, more efficient. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and others have taken issue with proposed changes to the election observer program, which allows people appointed by political campaigns to observe the election process.

The ordinance originally proposed adding a line that states observers “shall not possess any mechanical or electronic means of recording images or sound within designated areas.” That was amended later in the meeting to be more specific, and say instead that observers “shall not operate any mechanical or electronic device to record images or sound within designated areas where ballot processing occurs and confidential information could be easily recorded.”

Another amendment made during the meeting was to provide a definition of “designated areas.”

Another proposed change is to clarify that the number of observers allowed in the city’s election center from each campaign is “subject to space or regulatory constraints.”

Bronson opposes the changes to the city election code, particularly as they relate to the observer program.

“These changes undermine public trust and confidence in our elections,” Bronson said during opening mayoral comments Tuesday night. “When a voter steps in to vote they expect that they can trust their vote to count and be tallied for the person of their choice. We must uphold transparency and fairness in our elections. All of us want the best for Anchorage, our (municipality) is filled with dedicated, hardworking, and professional employees who want to do right by their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, members of this assembly continue to ignore the expertise in council of longstanding muni employees, employees that have weathered the storms of multiple administrations.”

Currently, a candidate or organization can have at least one, and potentially up to four, registered observers at the city’s election center. This would not be changed under the proposal, but it would be clarified that the municipal clerk could make the final call on how many observers could be allowed in the election center if there was a space constraint — if, for example, there were a large number of mayoral candidates in the race, with four observers each.

The clerk would need “good cause” to limit the number of observers to less than four per candidate, and if the number of observers could not fit into the space, each candidate would still get an equal number of the total allowed. Weddleton sought to amend this section of the ordinance to make it more clear that the default for each candidate or organization is one observer, and that up to four may be allowed if constraints allow for it. That’s the amendment that was revised near the end of the meeting that will be taken up again on Dec. 28.

The proposed changes would also require election observers to be trained by the municipal clerk’s office and tour the city election center in order to be credentialed.

“And let me just also point out that the ordinance does not change the number of observers allowed or the times when observers are authorized to observe election activities,” LaFrance said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It does not change the reasons why an observer may be asked to leave an election location or the MOA election team’s commitment to ensuring that observers understand the election process and showing them all aspects of that process.”

Several people turned out to the assembly chambers in the Loussac Library on Tuesday to testify both for and against the ordinance. Some of those people included former election workers, who said they supported the changes, especially the requirement for observers to be trained and tour the election center.

Peggy Robinson, a past election worker, said observers who have taken that tour returned having learned a lot about the process.

“I see them as being good tweaks to what currently has been in place,” she said.

A former election observer testified against the ordinance, but also cited a need for more training.

“I think instead of changing the code to fit the workers, the workers and observers need to be trained adequately for their jobs,” said Dustin Sherman. “Also the new candidates and campaigns need to be informed a little bit better before the … election.”

Those opposed to the code changes cited overall distrust with the city election process, and said they felt the changes to the observer program were too limiting.

“Citizens in Anchorage are already divided on measures such as this, and (this) can have the potential to make it worse,” one member of the public said. “When something like this comes up, I think people will always see the negative in it, in what’s being done. And citizens across Anchorage are already skeptical of election outcomes, whether it’s recent elections, the move to mail in ballots or the move to ranked-choice voting in the future.”

Many people who spoke in favor of the changes referenced disruptions from observers in the most recent mayoral runoff election this past spring. When the mayoral runoff was certified, the municipal clerk’s office released a report detailing several instances of observers being disruptive, intimidating or threatening to election staff. According to the report, one observer had to be asked not to touch the cage that contains ballots. That same observer then approached a different election worker later that day, according to the report, and that election worker reported that he said something to the effect that he “would be back to harass her more tomorrow.”

According to the report, people gathered in the election center’s parking lot and took photos of election workers as they came and went, as well as their vehicles and license plates.

“On more than one occasion, Election Officials were accosted in the parking lot,” the report states.

At Tuesday’s meeting, those in favor of the changes said they can help keep election workers safe while they work to process ballots.

“I was one of the observers during the Bronson election and I personally witnessed the stress on (Municipal Clerk) Barbara Jones’ face,” said Jean Strong, a former election observer. “Each day it got worse and worse. That’s not fair to her.”

“This is definitely needed due to the many reports of harassment and disruptive behavior that a number of our election workers witnessed and received during our last municipal election this past spring,” said Jonathan Marsh, another testifier. “None of the rules for observers have changed, but the language for what is and isn’t acceptable is definitely more spelled out so that the workers are able to do their jobs with more protections with defined terms in place, and also so that observers have every opportunity to be informed on how the voting process works.”

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