The Anchorage Assembly spent Friday afternoon asking the city clerk's office and other election staff about how nearly half of Anchorage’s polling places ran out of ballots, causing some voters to be turned away to a different polling place during last week's elections.
Lawmakers gathered at the Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Loussac library at noon Friday for a special worksession on the election.
Municipal Clerk Barbara Gruenstein's office was in the hot seat, facing questions about the availability of ballots at different precincts on election night, and where they were located. Gruenstein says about 143,000 ballots were printed for election night, but despite shortages at some locations, there were 63,705 ballots left over -- never used. Some were stored at City Hall, and distributed once polling places ran low.
Assembly members raised concerns that about 10,000 unused ballots had been stored at the Loussac Library, not being sent to other locations experiencing shortages.
"Ballots were needed all over town, and yet there were thousands of ballots sitting (at the Loussac) in the back room," Assembly member Harriet Drummond said.
Gruenstein said those ballots had begun going out to other precincts once the ballot shortages became clear.
Other Assembly members questioned the extent of the training that election workers receive. Deputy Clerk Jacqueline Duke said that all election workers must attend "required" training, but if they have worked an election before, election workers are allowed to "forego" the training.
Assembly member Adam Trombley noted that there was nothing in the instruction manuals provided to election workers telling them what to do if they run out of ballots. Gruenstein said that information would be added next year.
In a letter to the public (PDF), Gruenstein is recommending that the Assembly hire an independent investigator to look into what went wrong on election night, something that the ACLU of Alaska has already been advocating. On Tuesday, the assembly turned down an idea to hire special counsel by a vote of 7-4. Some Assembly members who voted against it said they should wait until Friday's meeting to hear answers to their questions.
Some Assembly members wanted to know when the clerk's office noticed that several precincts were running out of ballots.
"When did it hit the fan?" Duke responded. "I'm going to say 5 o'clock."
Assembly member Bill Starr asked Gruenstein about whether a potentially high turnout fueled by Proposition 5, a controversial gay-rights initiative, factored into decisions about how many ballots to give to polling places and how many to hold back at city hall.
"Did you not get in your mind it would be a hot-button issue?" Starr asked.
"I knew it was going to be high," Gruenstein responded, "but I did not get into the level of detail that at this point I wish I had."
The clerk's office has said that they have no indication that any polling places closed early across the city due to lack of ballots.
The election is scheduled to be certified and made official by the Assembly at its meeting on Tuesday -- but this week, Assembly Chair Debbie Ossiander said the Assembly wouldn’t do so until members' questions about the election had been answered.
"I want to emphasize I do not believe that we should certify this election until we understand what happened this year and what its impact was,” Ossiander said on Tuesday.
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