APOC hears complaints related to groups opposed to ranked choice voting

APOC hears complaints related to groups opposed to ranked choice voting
Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 5:15 PM AKST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2023 at 8:57 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The pro-ranked choice voting group Alaskans for Better Elections wants to see two opponents of ranked choice voting groups fined and brought into compliance for violating campaign ethics laws.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) heard arguments from both sides at Thursday’s special meeting.

One of the groups named in the complaint is Preserve Democracy, and it’s led by former U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.

The complaint alleges Preserve Democracy failed to register as a lobbyist with the commission before campaigning in favor of a proposed ballot measure to repeal ranked choice voting in Alaska.

Tshibaka and her attorney told the commission that Preserve Democracy is against ranked choice voting, specifically the spread of it to other communities and states throughout the nation. Because in her opinion it has had a damaging effect on Alaska’s elections.

Contrary to what the opposing attorney argued, she said at no point did Preserve Democracy’s website advocate for the proposed ballot measure, nor did she campaign for it at any events she spoke at.

Tshibaka said she found the hearing to have a “chilling effect on free speech,” and said this is what happens when government is too involved in overregulating things.

“I think it’s easy for people who don’t agree with my political positions to take statements I make and twist them for political gain,” Tshibaka said.

After Thursday hearing Tshibaka said she doesn’t know how the commission will rule, but if it doesn’t rule in Preserve Democracy’s favor she and her attorney will take their claim to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Additionally, Tshibaka said if Preserve Democracy has to register with the APOC as a lobbyist, it could be damaging to her group.

“Preserve Democracy donors come from around the U.S., not just in Alaska — they don’t want to be involved in donating to an organization where they have to have all their donor information disclosed, because this is intentionally not supposed to be a political activities organization. If we’re finding ourselves in a position, where we’re going to have our speech regulated by APOC for activities that we never disclosed to donors we would be involved in, yes, we would expect to see a significant drop off from our donors and likely have to shut down the organization,” Tshibaka said.

However, Alaskans for Better Elections attorney Samuel Gottstein said there is evidence to back up that at multiple Preserve Democracy events Tshibaka specifically referenced the ballot initiative and told people to sign it.

“If somebody is talking or advocating for a ballot initiative, the public has a right to know who is funding that speech, and so that’s where we believe Preserve Democracy crossed the line,” Gottstein said.

The other complaint argued Thursday was against the group Alaskans for Honest Elections: the group circulating petitions to get ranked choice voting repealed in the state.

The complaint said Anchorage pastor Art Mathias formed a church organization called Rank Choice Education Association (RCEA), and then donated roughly $90,000 to it.

The church then donated the money to Alaskans for Honest Elections, of which Mathias is the director.

“That’s the problem, because he’s not disclosed as a donor, even though that money passed through somewhat nonsensically. He said both that he had no idea that the money went from Rank Choice Education Association to Alaskans for Honest Elections and at the same time, he said he is the only one with check writing authority for rank choice Education Association. So that clearly does not square,” said Alaskans for Better Elections attorney Scott Kendall.

Kendall also said there were a lot of surprising things that came out of Thursday’s hearing — the most surprising being that RCEA admitted to the commission it was formed in Washington as a church. The other was the organization admitted that this church had actually accepted cash and then given it directly to a campaign, which is prohibited, he said.

“Even more stunning, they admitted that it’s a church that has no religious purpose. It is a church for IRS tax status, and yet all it does is advocate against ranked choice voting,” Kendall said.

He said there are two possible motivations for why Mathias acted the way he did. One is to remain anonymous.

“When Alaskans for Honest Elections reports who their donors are, and again, that has to appear the top three donors on every communication, his name doesn’t appear, and it has never appeared. So it gives him some level of anonymity,” Kendall said.

The other is a tax break, he said.

“Which if you’re a wealthy individual and you give $100,000 and you get a 30% tax break, that’s significant. That’s $30,000 of the taxpayers subsidizing political activity — that’s prohibited,” said Alaskans for Better Elections attorney Scott Kendall.

PhiI Izon — also named in the complaint — is a member of Alaskans for Honest Elections and Rank Choice Education Association, told the commission, with his attorney present, that some of the allegations are the result of bad advice his group received from staff at the Public Offices Commission.

Additionally, Izon said he and Mathias were not trying to be deceitful, but doing their best to be in compliance.

“So there was a period in time where the staff gave him incorrect advice because they didn’t realize what he was doing. That period from January to February of this year, we’re not even arguing he should be penalized for. The problem is in February the staff corrected him, gave him comprehensive instructions on how to comply and he simply did not comply,” Kendall said.

Izon appeared in person to speak before the commission, but after speaking to his attorney he declined to be interviewed for this story.

APOC staff recommended that the parties named in the complaints be fined, but the commission says it will not issue its ruling on possible fines for at 10 days.

According to APOC staff, Preserve Democracy is facing a fine of a little less than $24,000, and the parties listed in the Alaskans for Honest Election complain could be looking at fines in excess of $100,000.