Legislators concerned about Alaska primary election problems

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 14:47


Legislators are voicing their concerns with state officials about voting irregularities during the primary election that may have affected the result in at least one precinct.

The Senate State Affairs Committee held a hearing in Anchorage on Monday to get more information on the problems that came about during the Aug. 16 primary election. No action was taken, but some legislators discussed urging the state to hold off on certifying the election.

The meeting took place as election workers from the Alaska Division of Elections hand-counted ballots in Juneau.

Many of the errors during the statewide election were blamed on election workers not following proper procedures.

“The division will, I hope, take note of some of the issues we and the public have raised,” said Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze, of Chugiak, who convened the informational hearing.

The main problem under review is the close District 40 House race. The incumbent there, Democrat Benjamin Nageak, caucuses with the Republican-led House majority but lost his primary election to Dean Westlake by 21 votes.

In the Shugnak precinct, the chair allowed people to vote on two separate ballots, and the number of votes cast was greater than the vote difference between the candidates.

“This is a very serious issue that we’ve been looking at,” Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke told the committee. “We as a division really need to do a better job educating our voters about the two-ballot system. It’s definitely something we’ll evaluate again after this election is certified.”

Alaska primaries have two ballots, one with just Republican candidates and the other has all other candidates. Only Republicans, nonpartisan or unregistered voters can pick the Republican ballot, but anyone can vote on the combined ballot.

The elections division made a video training program for workers prior to the election that was made available to communities across the state. Bahnke said the training program saved the state $225,000 in travel expenses.

She also reminded legislators that state law only requires the division to develop a comprehensive training program, and that election workers aren’t required to undergo the training.

Republican Sen. John Coghill, of North Pole, recommended the Legislature look in to the issue.

“I think accountability for training is something we’re going to have to address in statute,” he said.

The election is scheduled to be certified Friday, but Bahnke said House District 40 was expected to be certified by the end of Monday because the race is so close.

“If they (the voting irregularities) appear to have changed the outcome of the race we’re absolutely considering options of what we’ll do, and we’re working with the Department of Law to evaluate those options,” Bahnke said.

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