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Will Anchorage voters cry foul after election mess Tuesday?

Ben Anderson
Eric Adams photo

It was a strange election day in Anchorage on Tuesday, as citizens -- well, most citizens -- got to cast their votes for Anchorage's mayor, a handful of school board seats and bond propositions, and one contentious gay rights proposition. In the process, allegations of improper voting registration, polling places running out of ballots and even voters being turned away, cast a heavy pall over a day that should represent the best of the democratic process.

In the end, very little about the election was close, with incumbent Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan winning handily over the main contender, Paul Honeman, an East Anchorage representative in the city's Assembly. With 97.5 percent of precincts tallied as of midnight, Sullivan finished the night with 59.31 percent of the vote (32,005 actual votes), compared to Honeman's 38.20 percent (20,613 votes), according to the most recently available numbers from the Municipality of Anchorage Clerk's Office. Most polls had showed Honeman trailing, so his loss didn't come as a major surprise, though such a wide margin was more than many expected.

What did come as a surprise to many in Anchorage was the apparently sound defeat of Proposition 5, a hotly-debated proposition that would have included gay and transgender citizens in the anti-discrimination Municipal Code that already protects others based on race, gender, age, marital status and other traits. When the results first started coming in from precincts around Anchorage, it was as close as could be -- 50.5 percent against, 49.5 percent for. But as the night wore on, the gap widened. By midnight, with 97.5 percent of precincts counted, it appeared that the citizens initiative had been defeated,  58 percent (31,723 votes) to 42 percent (22,726 votes).

Many had expected a much closer contest on this one.

The debate around Prop. 5 has largely been one from the gut and the heart, with both sides passionately defending their reasons for or against the proposition. Supporters said that the language was necessary to ensure fair access to employment and housing for Anchorage gays and transgenders. The opposition argued such discrimination didn't exist, and such a law would infringe on their rights and freedoms.

And while both Honeman and Prop. 5 lost by relatively large margins, questions and allegations that swirled around polling left many scratching their heads or worse, feeling disenfranchised and angry with what appeared to be a lack of organization and preparedness by city officials inexplicably caught flat-footed on the job.

The dinner rush

Municipal elections generally don't have a very high turnout. In 2011, a measly 23 percent of voters came out for the election. In 2010, it was even more dismal, at just under 20 percent. The last time a mayoral race was held, when Dan Sullivan first won the office, it was a little better, hovering around 30 percent.

According to City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein, the number of voters that turned out for Tuesday's election was "unprecedented." She said that the turnout caught officials off guard.

"In terms of scale, the turnout for the mayor's election is always higher than other elections," Gruenstein said. "But there was nothing that would have indicated this."

The final numbers weren't yet available, but there was some pretty strong evidence backing up the claims of the unusually high turnout: from Eagle River to south Anchorage, polling places started running out of ballots.

It happened in the evening hours, as those getting off of work swung by their polling locations to perform their civic duty. Reports flooded in from around the city of polling places -- churches, schools, recreation centers -- running out of ballots. Officials, unsure what to do, called for more or had people start casting votes on sample ballots, which were placed in a separate container to be counted later. Some people waited for more ballots to arrive. Paul Honeman tweeted that voters should wait at their polling station for more, since a voter who arrives before polls officially closed at 8 p.m. could not be turned away.

Some people left anyway. Rumors arose of some people being turned away outright because there was nothing left to vote on. Gruenstein said at 9:15 p.m. that she still couldn't be certain that all the polls were closed. She added that the Municipal Code prepares for such events.

"By code, we're required to print ballots for 70 percent of registered voters," Gruenstein said. "Everybody knows that number's inflated, 70 percent always feels so wasteful," but they go ahead and print them out anyway. They dispatched employees to fill the orders for more ballots. Gruenstein herself ended up shuttling ballots to a tapped-out polling station in East Anchorage.

"We did the best we could, we had people running all over town with ballots. It breaks my heart that people were turned away or couldn't stay," Gruenstein said.

An affirmation

For others, that heartbreak may not be enough to repair the election. Mayoral contender Honeman, despite the gap between his votes and Sullivan's, said he wouldn't concede until all the evidence of voting impropriety had come in.

"Certainly we're looking at everything, we're not conceding anything and we're not ruling anything out," Honeman said. "I'm a little frustrated with the issues with the ballots at the precincts, we were getting calls of places running out of ballots, people being turned away."

Honeman said that federal voting laws may have been violated, which could turn into another battle.

"If people were denied the right to vote, then there may be more of a problem," he said.

For his part, Sullivan, while concerned about the problems at the polls, didn't see them as much of a challenge to his victory in light of the wide gap between him and Honeman.

"The margin of victory goes well beyond the shortages of ballots in some locations," Sullivan said.

And while Sullivan wouldn’t go so far as to call such a strong showing at the polls a mandate, he did call it an "affirmation" that the people of Anchorage approved of the job he was doing.

"We’re happy," he said. "When you win by this kind of margin, it shows that the people think you’re on the right track."

More controversy swirls around Prop. 5

So how did Prop. 5, which Honeman had aligned himself with, factor into Sullivan's victory?

In much the same way that many believe 2010 Senate candidate Joe Miller defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary election, it wasn't the man who brought folks to the polls in force, it was the issue. Miller just happened to be the more conservative candidate sharing a ballot with an initiative that would have required parental notification prior to a minor having an abortion.

Honeman doesn't describe himself as either a Republican or a Democrat, while Sullivan is a Republican. On Tuesday, as the results continued to come in,  Sullivan said that he was against Prop. 5, and "I guess the majority of the voters agreed."

Prop. 5 on Tuesday's ballot faced staunch opposition from conservative detractors, primarily the religious right. It may have been their get-out-the-vote effort that left Prop. 5 gasping on the floor while simultaneously launching Sullivan to what Matt Larkin, president of Dittman Research, said was quite possibly the widest-ever margin of victory in an Anchorage mayoral race.

But that get-out-the-vote effort -- led by the Alaska Family Council and its president, Jim Minnery, and the Catholic Anchor newspaper -- didn't come without its own controversy on Tuesday. A Facebook post by the "No on 5" campaign erroneously stated that unregistered voters could register on election day and have their vote counted.

City code requires that a voter register 30 days prior to an election if they wish to take part, and City Clerk Gruenstein confirmed that, saying those that registered on election day will automatically have their ballots placed with other questionable ballots. Ultimately, those who registered on election day will have their votes denied. But she couldn't say how many such votes had been cast.

"Will a lot of those questioned ballots be tossed because they're not registered? I can't say for certain, but it’s possible," she said.

Like Honeman, the One Anchorage campaign, which backed Prop. 5, will wait for all the evidence to come in before deciding how to proceed.

"Our stance at this point is we’re waiting for the City Clerk to assess the situation and provide a statement," One Anchorage spokesman Trevor Storrs said. "We’re going to remain positive as an organization, and determine our own statement based off of fact, and not conjecture."

Storrs said that One Anchorage was proud of the campaign it had run, even though the result wasn’t what it expected, saying that it had “raised our eyebrows.”

Each of the other citywide bond propositions passed muster with voters, including a nearly $60 million school bond and a $27 million road bond. 

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com