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Effort to scrub signatures from oil-tax petition only has 2 takers

Alex DeMarban
Volunteer Harry Crawford collection signatures on the bid to repeal Senate Bill 21 at the state DMV office in Anchorage. Laurel Andrews photo

An unprecedented effort to counter the referendum against a massive tax oil-tax break has succeeded in breaking new trail for statewide political campaigns, but it has had little success in one area: The lieutenant governor's office said on Wednesday that only two Alaskans have requested that their names be removed from the original petition.

With organizers of the referendum saying they've gathered 35,000 of the 30,169 signatures needed to place an item on the ballot that would strike down Senate Bill 21, the two retractions may turn out to be insignificant. But that doesn't mean the unique attempt created by Republican political consultant Art Hackney to stop the referendum has not succeeded in other ways.

In fact, a different prong of his attack -- having some 20 people standing near petitioners to rebuff their arguments and dissuade potential signers -- has proven "very successful," said Hackney.   

"The other side is blowing loud and fast that people have flocked to them, but that's not the direct experience on the ground, and it's not human nature," Hackney said. "When you look at the way most people sign signatures because they're being told a simple, 'Why not just let it be on ballot?' they tend to stop and sign. But when someone says, 'Hey, this is a very bad idea and here's why,' they just want to get on with their shopping. So it is absolutely effective."

Pat Lavin, organizer of "Vote Yes -- Repeal the Giveaway," said it appears that effort hasn't worked either.

"We haven't had much feedback from petitioners that it's been much of an issue," he said. "We have had a lot of people tell us they signed specifically because someone tried to stop them from signing."  

As the fight moves into its final days and heats up, Hackney said he has no idea if his efforts were enough to stop the referendum.

At any rate, the lieutenant governor's office will be open Saturday to receive booklets. Then the state Division of Elections can begin the process of verifying signatures.

If the referendum is approved, Alaska voters will have the chance next year to repeal a tax break that many believe will cut oil companies’ tax bill as much as $1 billion a year. BP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips would be the biggest beneficiaries -- with no guarantee that they'll increase their investments in the state.

Hackney said he's done the right thing by standing up for what he believes in and using "every appropriate challenge" to stop the "insane" effort to undo a tax break before it's been given a chance to work. The effort has only injected more uncertainty into the state's tax regime, uncertainty that turns investors away.

But one letdown has been the lack of financial support. He and his wife, April Hackney, have funded the entire anti-referendum effort, he said. The total cost will likely be under $20,000 once all the bills are in, he said.

He was hoping for more funding from corporations, groups and anyone who saw, as he did, that it was cheaper to stop the referendum before it made the ballot.

"We were hoping some people would come forward and realize it makes sense to make a legal and proper effort now instead of spending millions of dollars fighting it if gets on the ballot," he said.

But supporters may have shied away in part because people naturally fear controversy, and because corporate ethics often require disclosure -- though the giving could have happened anonymously, he said.

Lavin said those groups "probably saw how stupid and futile that would be, that exceedingly few people would change their mind because of Art Hackney. To my knowledge, no reasonable person would be able to think they could convince tens of thousands of Alaskans they could write in and undo their petition." 

Hackney said he never expected many retractions. But if more money had come in, he could have advertised the effort. As it is, it's uncertain if his website to coordinate those retractions -- imadeamistake.org -- made much of a difference.  

On the website, signature gatherers second-guessing their decision could fill out a simple retraction request that could then be emailed to the lieutenant governor's office.

Michelle Toohey, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees elections in Alaska, said one retraction arrived "the old-fashioned way," by snail mail. A second arrived from a personal email address, making it unlikely it'd been sent through the web site.

The names of the two people who requested the retraction could not be immediately provided to this reporter, Toohey said.

"We don't just do things like this; they have to be reviewed by an attorney," she said.

If there's a chance the two retractions will change the outcome of the process, they'll be scrutinized closely to make sure they are legitimate and were in fact sent by the people who claim to have sent them, Toohey said.

Prior to this election, retractions have not arrived electronically. State law merely says a retraction can be requested "by giving written notice to the lieutenant governor before the date the petition is filed."

Reviewing the law earlier this year, Hackney asked Treadwell whether a retraction could be done by email.

Treadwell said he presented the question to the Division of Elections and the attorney general, and both determined that an electronic retraction was allowable under the law.

Hackney's other efforts, such as acting as a third-party to coordinate the retraction effort through the website, were permissible under the authority of the Alaska Public Offices Commission. There is nothing in state law to prevent such efforts, Hackney said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com