Welcome to the latest quickie edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column catching up on and trying to make sense of the week’s news from Alaska’s political world.
As always, pontificating and prognosticating about Alaska politics is best enjoyed as a recreational activity with a hefty dose of skepticism. Be hopeful but plan to be disappointed.
After the year that has been and will continue to be for another week, I hope you can find some time over the holidays to disconnect from the news and do something you enjoy. I’ll be cooking, playing some games, doing a bit of painting and throwing plenty of frisbees for the pups.
Take care and be kind.
‘I’m still not really understanding why that is a legitimate assumption.’
The last two days of this week have been spent glued to the YouTube feed from Anchorage Superior Court Judge Josie Garton’s Zoom courtroom, which has been home to the evidentiary hearings in Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance “Maximum Combined Civil Penalty of $1,022,250” Pruitt’s Trumpian effort to overturn his election loss to Democratic Rep.-elect Dr. Liz Snyder.
Following his 11-vote loss to Snyder once all the votes were counted, recounted and certified, Pruitt (well, technically a bunch of citizens at first but they’ve since been dismissed from the case) brought a laundry list of complaints against the state claiming that he should either win or there should be a new election. While Pruitt’s team hasn’t explained why any one of the complaints should be enough to overturn the election, they basically argue that the “integrity of the election is at question.”
(We’re getting ahead of ourselves here a bit, but Judge Garton explains that such a vague claim isn’t enough to prove the kind of harm necessary to throw out votes or reverse the election.)
The claims are ranging, with some of them being filed after the 10-day window allowed by the state’s election law (another point that Garton dinged them for), but here goes:
A last-minute move of one precinct’s polling location move cost Pruitt the election
The key—and only currently surviving allegation—is that dozens of Republican voters in voter precinct 27-915 Chugach Foothills #1 were deprived of their right to vote because the Division of Elections made a last-minute move of their polling location, which had already been moved from the traditional location for the primary, without properly notifying voters.
The only problem with these claims is that the Division of Elections has moved a lot of polling locations over the years and saw about four times as many move this year because of the pandemic. They didn’t send out mailers because the move was made so close to the election, but signs were posted at both the traditional polling location and the one used for the primary election (which was still serving as a polling location for another precinct).
Former Alaska Republican Party and data ““whiz”” Dr. Randy Ruedrich estimates that this resulted in more than 50 Republicans being barred from voting. Ruedrich’s math is based purely on the assumption that neighboring precincts should have precisely the same turnout and given 27-915’s in-person turnout was 3% lower there must have been something awry and therefore Pruitt’s final vote total should be accordingly boosted. It’s a convenient assumption that was ripped apart by pretty much anyone in the court or out of it.
Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton Walsh asked at one point “I’m still not really understanding why that is a legitimate assumption.” ISER Director Ralph Townsend testified that the approach “would not be considered a valid argument in any professional setting.” Even Judge Garton got in on the action, asking if Ruedrich had actually done any analysis that moving a polling place (an unusual but not unprecedented practice) suppressed the vote. He couldn’t offer actual evidence it did.
Apparently the most compelling testimony Pruitt’s team could muster about why a last-minute polling location cost the anointed House Speaker reelection. Republican voter Mary Jo Cunniff testified on Tuesday that she had gone to the original polling locations and ended up showing up later than she wanted to at the polling location—about 8:40 a.m., about 11 hours before polls closed—but didn’t want to stand in line and had another meeting at 10 a.m. she needed to attend.
“By the time I got to Begich and I got out of my car and parked and all that and walked up, many, many, many people were there I just kinda gave up and left,” she said.
Though this claim was initially dismissed, Garton issued a stay on her motion regarding this claim because, after all, they held a trial on it. It’s procedural and nothing at all should be read into it as her finding any of this particularly convincing. “Procedurally” was said many times when she was explaining the order in court on Wednesday.
Everything else raised by Pruitt has been dismissed and was not brought up during the two days of hearings, but all this will likely get new life on appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, so here goes:
- Pruitt lost because the Division of Elections didn’t implement a new voter signature evaluation procedure after the Alaska Supreme Court unconstitutionally decided that the voter witness signature on absentee ballots was an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote during a pandemic. The main problem here is that there is no requirement in state law or the Alaska Constitution that requires the Division of Elections to create such a procedure. (Also, as the state has already conceded the witness signature requirement has never been used to identify fraud and has only barred people from voting.)
- Some number of voters voted even though they were allegedly not residents. This is based on the Pruitt team’s analysis of property sales records and a bit of a leap in logic. They go as far as naming 21 such voters in their filings along with their home addresses but don’t go quite so far to put into writing accusations that they knowingly committed voter fraud. This was thrown out because such a challenge on residency should be happening at the recount appeal level under state law and Garton notes publicly accusing voters of fraud “without any basis,” as she writes “demonstrates the danger of allowing contestants to question voter qualifications after an election through election contests.”
- Pruitt lost because when you combine everything else together a bunch of voters were disenfranchised. Garton threw this one out because nothing else was left standing. In a more scathing section of her order, she wrote, “None of the factual allegations contained in the complaint give rise to an inference that voters were actually disenfranchised. That is, the complaint does not allege that the Division deprived any voter of their right to vote. Nor does the complaint allege facts giving rise to a reasonable inference that similarly situated voters were treated differently, a necessary component of an equal protection violation.
So, what’s the point?
Really, there’s about as much substance to this lawsuit as there is with any of Trump’s lawsuits. At one point in the recount process, the Pruitt team even pointed to the Dominion voting machines as a reason to cast doubt on the election results. That ought to tell you plenty.
Still, there’s plenty of weird going on here. I find the fact that Pruitt has put into court filings what are essentially accusations of voter fraud without evidence should be pretty alarming as it’s precisely the sort of thing that can be weaponized into making some individuals’ lives pretty miserable for no reason.
As Garton writes, the proper place to challenge residency is at the recount appeal where issues of residency are decided by information available to the Director of Elections at the time of the recount. Pruitt has problems with this because that process presumes a voter’s address is valid unless they provide written notice to the division otherwise. Garton notes that’s kinda how it’s supposed to work and imagine a process where the candidates could litigate who is and isn’t an eligible voter after an election.
(Also, if the system worked like Pruitt wanted, we’d have a coin flip’s chance of Rep. Kathryn Dodge.)
It looks like Pruitt is going to continue to carry these claims to the Alaska Supreme Court. Even if he has no chance of winning on this, it’ll still serve Republican political purposes to harp about a “stolen” election (which, you know, was run by Republicans) for the next two years and continually attack Snyder at any chance.
This isn’t a particularly good faith effort here and, really, shouldn’t be treated as such.
Have any more questions about this case? I’d be happy to answer. Get ahold of me via email or on Twitter. If there’s enough questions, perhaps I’ll cobble it together into another post.
It’s been a busy time for lawsuits this week. The one most on our radar is the Legislature’s decision this week to file a lawsuit against Gov. Mike Dunleavy over lapsed appointments. Dunleavy has ignored the law passed by the Legislature and signed by him that would have rejected all unconfirmed appointees on Dec. 16 if the Legislature didn’t reconvene and vote on them before then.
The big implication of the suit is that it can potentially call into question any decision these people made in the month between Dec. 16 and when the new Legislature convenes in January. That includes the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s secretive and rushed decision to put $20 million into the ANWR oil lease sales because, apparently, they’re not so confident that ANWR is the cash cow everyone had thought it’d be.
That’s about how much notice folks in the Department of Health and Social Services got about the governor’s plan to reorganize the department in the middle of a pandemic. That’s also about how many details the governor had during his announcement.
That’s how many Alaskans in a survey conducted by Dittman Research and the Department of Health and Social Services say they wear a mask all the time or most of the time when interacting people outside their home. Just 4% said never and only 17% of Alaskans think that health measures have gone too far. Find the full topline results here.
It’s an interesting takeaway, particularly as we start to wonder about why covid cases are on the decline. Is the decline due to mandates, due a steep drop off in testing, due to voluntary measures or due to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s use of the emergency phone system to tell Alaskans that covid is very serious and maybe perhaps—if you feel like it—consider wearing a mask sometimes? Who’s really to say, but I have a feeling that it’s some varying amount of all of everything.
Though Anchorage’s health mandates are limited to is borders, it’s still a major hub for the region. Testing is down but so is the positivity rate. And, as it turns out, more Alaskans are changing their behavior than Anchorage Assemblywoman Jamie “Day of Reckoning” Allard and company would lead you to expect. And the less said about Dunleavy’s bizarre use of media—which continued this week with his snowflake-y move to Parlar and a frankly terrible video about PFD earnings—the better.
The fact is we’ll never really know whether we overreacted in our response to the pandemic. That’s the nature of preventative measures. Even if it’s all the equivalent of the TSA’s security theater, isn’t having people feel at least a bit more confident that everyone isn’t going to get sick while going out and shopping a good thing?
Still, according to the survey 65% of Alaskans think the state is on the wrong track, 68% think the economy is “not too good” or “pretty bad,” and 60% believe the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.
One last thing!
Sure, there’s plenty more to clown on but I’ve got some last-minute shopping to do and a brisket to pick up. Have a nice break everyone, and we’ll see you back next week with our superlatives and, perhaps, even something special.
Oh! Also, I figured out how to put together a better gallery of all of Pat Race’s fantastic political cartoons in his time as our cartoonist. Check ’em out!