“The ballot design change was a last-minute decision and should be looked at with suspicion.”
Those were the words of attorney Kevin Feldis, who was in front of the Anchorage Superior Court today arguing on behalf of Democrat-backed independent congressional candidate Alyse Galvin that the Division of Elections must reprint this year’s general election ballots after a surprise move by wiped away the voter registration of dozens of candidates.
It could be said about much of the Division of Elections’ actions this year (save for the gifs and memes, we like those), but more on that later in this post.
Without notifying candidates, political parties or voters, Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai redesigned the general election ballots to eliminate any indication that independent candidates who reached the general election through the Alaska Democratic Party’s primaries are, in fact, independents.
Fenumiai claims there were no politics at play in a decision that several candidates say is unfair, undemocratic and an advantage for Republicans in several contested races.
Her decision affected Galvin, U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, several legislative races and even Libertarians who reached the ballot through nominating petition. Instead of having “non-affiliated” or their voter registration next to their names—as was the case in the 2018 election and the 2020 primary—they now just say “Democratic Nominee” or, in Libertarian candidate for House District 16 Scott Kohlhaas’ case, “Petition Nominee.”
“Director Fenumiai’s unilateral decision to deny my party identification, while at the same time pushing the Democrat label on independent candidates, without consulting with or being asked to do so by voters, is an insult to our democratic process,” Kohlhaas said in a statement released Tuesday night (he is not party to the lawsuit brought by Galvin). “If the Lt. Governor knew about this, he is a danger to our democracy. If he didn’t, his administration is out of control. Either way, it’s hard to trust his administration to continue governing our elections.”
Today, the state defended its decision by arguing that reprinting the ballots could potentially cause the state to miss the deadline to mail ballots to oversea voters and that the law doesn’t actually support spelling out a candidate’s voter registration in addition to their party affiliation because that law was written before Democrats opened their primaries.
The state didn’t, however, give a clear reason for why the change was made—just that it was permissible in their eyes. They also didn’t explain why the state didn’t notify anyone of the changes—which they said was made back in June—until the ballots had been printed and the deadline to mail them less than a week away, making the logistics of a change easier.
The state said they’ve already printed some 800,000 ballots already and aren’t sure if there’s the paper available for a quick reprint.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Jennifer Stuart Henderson said she’ll make a decision on a temporary restraining order by the end of today, but today’s issue is just one more piece in a growing mountain of evidence that when taken together calls into question the fairness of our elections and the trust in the administration overseeing them.
Time and again, the Division of Elections and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer have made decisions that just so happen to tip the scales in favor of Republicans and their interests. Several legal challenges have, in most cases, found the Division of Elections made the wrong call according to state law and the Alaska Constitution. In a case over how the voter oil tax initiative was being handled, a superior court judge literally said that Meyer, a former oil company employee, had “his finger on the scales.”
For those keeping score, here’s a rundown of the issues:
- The Division of Elections refused to conduct a by-mail absentee election during the pandemic despite the Legislature explicitly giving them that power, an issue opposed by Republicans.
- The state then sent out by-mail ballot applications to voters 65 and older (a traditionally more conservative voting population) even though anyone can apply for and request an absentee ballot for any reason. A lawsuit was filed on this front, but a Trump-appointed judge ruled against it (giving the Division of Elections its first win).
- The summary of Ballot Measure 1, which seeks to raise taxes on legacy oil fields, was found to be unfairly biased by the state. This is where the courts said Meyer had put his fingers on the scales, a call that was upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.
- The Division of Elections, on the advice of now-former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, attempted to reject the effort to recall Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy from office as well as an election reform voter initiative. The Alaska Supreme Court found both rejections were wrong.
- With little notice, the state closed several polling places in rural Alaska ahead of the primary election due to a lack of available poll workers (which is why groups were pushing for a by-mail election).
- The state is currently being sued over the requirement for absentee ballots to have a witness signature, a requirement that civil rights groups say forces solitary people to choose between voting and potentially contracting COVID-19.
Why it matters
Trust that our elections will be free and fair is the foundation of democracy.
Perhaps everything that Meyer and Fenumiai have done with this year’s elections is completely above board and legal (though the Alaska Supreme Court has disagreed several times already), but the consistent trend of decisions that cater to Republicans and the administration’s personal interests is eroding the trust that the elections have been run in a fair and even-handed manner.
“Either way, it’s hard to trust his administration to continue governing our elections,” Kohlhaas said, and it’s a feeling that I imagine many others are starting to feel.
With everything that’s already going on—from foreign interference in our elections to the president’s suggestions to delay the election or ignore its results or to simply interference in the mail system—the climate is already primed for voters regardless of their political stripes to have doubts about this election, leading to the dark possibility that a large portion of the population will doubt the outcome of November’s elections.
We’re not nearly that close to a collapse in Alaska, but it sure feels like the foundation is being chipped away.