Senate debate schedule shapes up; Nageak wants new election

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - 14:46
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski celebrates her Republican primary election win on Aug. 16 in Anchorage. The U.S. Senate race is a four-way affair, but so far just one debate will feature the full field. In other election news, state Rep. Ben Nageak is seeking a new election after he claims irregularities in District 40 cost him his primary race against Dean Westlake. Photo by Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press

Just one debate so far will feature the four main candidates for the U.S. Senate seat, with participation in three others unclear.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democrat Ray Metcalfe, Libertarian Joe Miller and independent Margaret Stock have said they will take part in the public broadcasting debate Nov. 3, said Lori Townsend, news director for the Alaska Public Radio Network and moderator for that debate.

Murkowski also has committed to a fisheries debate Oct. 12 in Kodiak; an Alaska Federation of Natives’ candidate forum in Fairbanks Oct. 21; and a debate on the Arctic in Barrow on Oct. 26. The Kodiak debate will be carried by the local public radio station, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the Fairbanks or Barrow events would be on radio or television.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said by email that it was important to Murkowski to appear at events reflecting Alaska’s geographic, economic and demographic diversity.

Miller called on Murkowski to participate in televised debates. He said the debate schedule agreed to by Murkowski isn’t fair to voters trying to make an informed decision, and his campaign suggested some of the venues might be friendly to Murkowski, such as the Alaska Native forum. However, spokesman Randy DeSoto said Tuesday that they hadn’t decided which of the events Miller would attend beyond the public radio debate.

Dillon said there’s nothing preventing Miller from going to any of the debates. He also said there is nothing stopping television stations from covering the debates or scheduling their own, as they have done in the past. But he said these are the four events Murkowski plans to attend.

At least two of the events — those focused on the Arctic and fisheries — extended invitations to Murkowski, Miller, Metcalfe and Stock as well as two lesser-known candidates running as independents, according to organizers. Stock spokeswoman Amy Jackman said Stock plans to take part in both.

A spokesman for the Alaska Federation of Natives hasn’t responded to requests from The Associated Press about who has been invited and who has committed to the federation debate besides Murkowski. In interviews, Metcalfe said he plans to participate, and Jackman said Stock would as well. DeSoto said he was trying to connect with the forum’s point of contact.

Nageak seeks court intervention in lost primary race

The voting process during the House District 40 primary election was so fraught with error that the only remedy to save the election is to throw out the bad ballots and recount the votes, a lawyer for an incumbent state representative who lost his race by eight votes argued Tuesday.

“If that is impossible because of the misconduct has risen to the level that it makes it impossible to ascertain the outcome of the election, we would request that the court order that a new election be held,” attorney Timothy McKeever said in opening statements in the trial for the lawsuit brought by state Rep. Benjamin Nageak.

Nageak, of Barrow, lost the race to challenger Dean Westlake by eight votes after a recount was conducted. Nageak is a Democrat but caucuses with the House’s Republican-led majority. Former state GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich was sitting at the plaintiff’s table.

The state Democratic Party supported Westlake’s candidacy.

The most contentious issue in the primary election was that all 50 voters in the village of Shungnak received both the Republican ballot and the ballot for other parties, including Democrats. State law dictates that a voter only gets one ballot.

However, the Democratic Party has an open system, meaning any voter regardless of party can cast a ballot in the Democratic primary, while Republicans have a closed primary.

There were no Republicans running for the District 40 seat, only the two Democrats. Because the Democrats have an open primary, the state’s lead attorney said everyone who voted in Shugnak did so properly.

“It was an honest mistake,” state attorney Margaret Paton-Walsh said of voters receiving both ballots. She said it does not amount to malconduct, and counting those ballots “did not produce a single vote in the Democratic primary that was cast by a voter who was not eligible to vote in the Democratic primary.”

McKeever said there were other voting irregularities, such as seven voters in Kivalina who were allowed to vote both ballots but were required to cast questioned ballots. The seven ballots were not counted after the election, but they were tallied during the recount.

There were also claims of a voter in Bettles being identified as a Republican by a poll worker and given that party’s ballot.

There were allegations of problems with special-needs ballots in Buckland, misplaced absentee ballots in Nome during the review board process, not having enough poll workers at some precincts and paperwork errors.

Paton-Walsh said most of the allegations made by the plaintiffs were “simply their failure to understand the process by which elections are conducted, allegations which are not simply true or things that did not factor” in the outcome of the election.

She noted the state of Alaska has a high threshold to challenge the outcome of an election.

“The only real error that occurred, that some voters received both the Republican and combined party ballot, does not meet the standard for a successful election contest,” she said.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi is hearing the case without a jury. He told both sides that he expects closing arguments either late next Monday or Tuesday morning.

Attorneys expect a ruling by Oct. 7, and that could be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Absentee in-person voting for the general election begins Oct. 24, and the state would like to have the ballots prepared a week before that date.

State agency apologizes for debate tweets aimed at Trump

An Alaska state agency is apologizing after political comments aimed at Donald Trump were posted on its official social media site.

KTOO reports that the posts to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Twitter account occurred during Monday night’s presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, including one that referred to Trump as a “red-face mansplainer.”

The station reports that agency spokeswoman Susan Morgan said in an email that department officials apologize.

She wrote: “Some recent tweets were inadvertently posted to our Twitter account by a DHSS staff member who was accidentally logged into the DHSS account instead of their personal account while on their personal phone at home.”

Morgan added: “The inadvertent tweets were deleted and we will be reviewing the matter in the days ahead to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

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