At the closing of the evidentiary hearings in Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt’s Trump-like effort to undo his election loss, Superior Court Judge Josie Garton threw some cold water on the hope that she had a sudden change of heart on the case following her wholesale dismissal of his claims on Tuesday.
As today’s hearing got underway, Garton issued an order that stayed her dismissal of Pruitt’s claim that a last-minute move of a polling location by the Division of Elections cost him the election. It was a fact that the right-wing blog Must Read Alaska seized upon, claiming that “evidently, after Tuesday’s testimony, the judge believes that there’s enough smoke, and there may very well be fire.”
That’s not at all the case.
Garton explained the motion was necessary because, after all, the court had continued to hold a trial on the dismissed count as part of anticipation that the Alaska Supreme Court would be hearing the case in January. It was procedural.
“Procedurally having dismissed the complaint it is rather unusual to then hold a trial on a dismissed complaint,” she said. “I wanted to procedurally clarify that I was staying the dismissal of that count so that we could have this trial.”
She gave no indication that the first day’s hearing—which featured former Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich with “analysis” that the move must have cost Pruitt the election because that precinct’s turnout didn’t match one next to it and a GOP voter who said she didn’t vote because the move caused her to be late and she didn’t feel like waiting in line—had changed her mind.
“My intention is to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to (the count regarding the relocation of the polling place) so that they can also be reviewed if the Supreme Court reverses the order of dismissal,” she said.
Attorneys from all parties agreed with the motion, saying that it would essentially help resolve the case quickly given that oral arguments in front of the Alaska Supreme Court are set 11 days ahead of the start of the legislative session.
‘Would not be considered a valid argument in any professional setting’
Today’s most impactful testimony came from ISER Director Ralph Townsend, who testified for the state. Townsend had reviewed the work that Ruedrich had done and said he found it lacking and seemingly intent on reaching a predetermined conclusion—that Pruitt should have won.
On Tuesday, Ruedrich provided numbers on in-person turnout for the precinct in question with two neighboring precincts. He claimed the difference in in-person turnout, about 3%, is evidence that Republican voters were prevented from voting and the election should be handed to Pruitt. However, he was unable to provide any evidence that the move—of which about 18 happened in the Anchorage area—or that alleged problems with notifying voters of the move actually played a role in the change.
“Why should it not?” Ruedrich responded when asked about his assumption that turnout neighboring precincts should match.
Townsend was particularly critical of the analysis today, arguing that a serious look at the issue would have tried to answer whether the differing turnout rates could have happened by chance as part of the natural variation between one district and another.
“Dr. Ruedrich does the arithmetic correctly but there is no analysis that says this could not have arisen by chance and that is really the first standard of asking, ‘What is the reliability of the information?’” he said. “Because of the approach taken, it would not be considered a valid argument in any professional setting.”
When asked by Pruitt’s attorney whether he had done such an analysis, Townsend said he wasn’t asked to but that didn’t stop others from doing their own analysis and posting it to Twitter (Alaska has a lot of great data nerds, by the way).
I did that analysis. Here’s the difference between turnout in every precinct in Alaska, and the average turnout in all precincts that they share a boundary with. Red line is the average difference, green line is the precinct in question. blue lines are the 95% CI around the red. pic.twitter.com/l4umnikc0b— Kevin Berry (@KevinBerryEcon) December 23, 2020
What’s going on with the case
Garton had dismissed all of Pruitt’s election claims right out of the gate on Tuesday as the evidentiary hearings were getting underway. She found many defects with the lawsuit that included wholly incorrect readings of the law, late filings, and vague claims that everything undermined the election.
The courts are required to give plaintiffs like Pruitt the benefit of the doubt when it comes to dismissing their claims without a trial but in Garton’s order she said the court “is not required to accept a plaintiff’s ‘unwarranted factual inference and conclusions of law.’”
The move undercut much of the evidentiary hearings, but she acknowledged that the failure of the claims regarding the polling location move were due to a “pleading error,” specifically that Pruitt’s team offered new arguments too late in the filing process for them to be properly considered.
This claim stems from a last-minute change for one polling district—one of many conducted because of the pandemic—from the Muldoon Town Center to Begich Middle School. Pruitt’s team claims that because in-person voting leaned Republican that the move prevented enough Republicans from voting that his 11-vote election loss should be reversed.
However, the best Pruitt’s team has been able to muster to support that claim was a Republican voter who said did make it to the polling place in time to vote but didn’t feel like waiting in line.
Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai along with several poll workers testified during the two days of hearings. The general takeaway from both is that the pandemic put immense pressure on the Division of Elections but that nothing regarding the last-minute move was necessarily unusual or done with bias against any candidate.
The original polling location for the precinct was located at Wayland Baptist College but was moved to the Muldoon Town Center for the primary election when it became clear to poll workers that the employees at Wayland Baptist would attempt to screen all voters for covid before allowing them to enter. The owner of the Muldoon Town Center was then reportedly unhappy with hosting two poll locations for the general election, so the division made the last-minute decision to move it to Begich Middle School.
Poll workers testified that they had placed sign and posters notifying voters of the change and that sending out printed mailers to voters was unrealistic given the timing.