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Report: Mismanagement, cost-cutting led to botched Anchorage election

Eric Christopher Adams
Loren Holmes photo

Hands-off management, cost cutting and inexperienced staff -- not politics or intentional efforts to influence outcome -- were primarily responsible for Anchorage's embarrassing April municipal election. That's according to a nine-page report by a former Alaska Superior Court judge hired by Anchorage Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall to investigate what led to ballot shortages at nearly half the city's polling places, with some residents turned away, unable to cast a vote.

The April election, which included votes for mayor and a contentious initiative to add sexual orientation to the city's equal-rights protections, turned out to be one with higher turnout than expected or planned for by the Municipal Clerk's office.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan handily won re-election in the vote. Sullivan took his second oath of of office Monday via Skype from Hawaii, where he was vacationing with his family, according to a statement from his office. Proposition 5, which would have made it illegal to discriminate against Anchorage residents because of sexual preference or gender identity, failed.

Retired judge Dan Hensley concluded that then-Deputy Municipal Clerk Jacqueline Duke, the city employee responsible for distributing ballots to poll places, based her decision on experience in the only two elections she'd worked. Those elections, in 2009 2010 and 2011, had low voter turnout. She didn't seek more ballots, despite higher-than-normal absentee voting leading up to April 3, according to Hensley's report.

Duke has since been fired.

But that was only the start of problems. Hensley also noted that election workers weren't trained to respond to ballot shortages. Municipal Clerk Barbara Gruenstein exercised a "hands off management strategy," delegating important city business like election oversight to her deputy clerk, "without providing much supervision and without having a working knowledge" of what exactly to do in the event the election went awry, which by all signs appeared to be the case as early as lunchtime on April 3, according to the report.

Gruenstein resigned in the wake of the disastrous election.

Hensley also notes that recent cost cutting at the clerk's office may have played a role in all the inexperience and mismanagement. Prior to 2010, several other employees had staffed the clerk's office, including a designated Election Coordinator, who was highly qualified, had worked in government for years, and had lots of election experience. When the coordinator retired in 2009, her duties and responsibilities were shifted to the newly-hired Duke, who was considered a "competent" assistant clerk but who had no expertise in managing elections.

Hensley also concludes that an email sent out days before the election that encouraged unregistered voters who opposed equal rights for gays and lesbians to flood the polls on election day, had its "desired effect" of exacerbating election problems. That email was sent out by Jim Minnery, an anti-gay rights activist who leads the Alaska Family Council and who'd campaigned against the equal-rights initiative.

The report goes into much greater detail concerning ballot shortages at 50 precincts, the consequences of hiring temporary workers to manage city elections, and other problems at the municipal level that led to voter disenfranchisement. Hensley offers various common-sense administrative recommendations to the Assembly. Read the entire report here (PDF).

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied the city had not yet replaced former Municipal Clerk Barbara Gruenstein. Alaska Dispatch reported May 30 that former Equal Rights Commission Director Barbara Jones had been hired by the Assembly. 

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com