The losses keep rolling in for Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt.
Superior Court Judge Josie Garton issued two reports today that both found Pruitt’s legal team had failed to put together a convincing case to undo the results of the 2020 general election where he lost by 11 votes to Democratic Rep.-elect Liz Snyder.
The reports are part of two different challenges Pruitt has brought in a Trumpian effort to overturn his loss: One is a recount appeal in front of the Alaska Supreme Court and the second is an election contest lawsuit that’s currently in the Alaska Superior Court but will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Garton is serving as the special master for the recount appeal, charged with reviewing the evidence and making findings on law, as well as the judge on election contest lawsuit. She has already dismissed all but one of Pruitt’s claims in the election contest lawsuit, writing that the court “is not required to accept a plaintiff’s ‘unwarranted factual inference and conclusions of law.’”
The recount appeal is a relatively run-of-the-mill challenge that centers on the decisions made by the Division of Elections to count some ballots—specifically three ballots where voters filled out the oval for Snyder but left marks in or near the Pruitt’s oval—and reject others—one where a voter didn’t fill in any oval but instead circled “Republican nominee,” five ballots where voters failed to fill out the proof of identity on their ballot and several others.
Garton’s report on the recount appeal sides with the Division of Elections to uphold every decision, finding that the Division of Elections complied with the law on all matters.
The election challenge, which has been whittled down to a dispute over the Division of Elections’ last-minute move of the polling location for the 27-915 precinct, was the focus of a two-day hearing last week that heard from several poll workers, election supervisors, the candidates in the race as well as an assortment of “expert” witnesses.
The claim here is that the Division of Elections so thoroughly violated Alaska election law by failing to properly notify the public of a last-minute move of a precinct polling location that Pruitt is due an entirely new election. Really.
But that point rests on the testimony of former Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who argues that the in-person turnout of the precinct should have matched the turnout of two neighboring precincts (even though they didn’t match either), and the testimony of one lone Republican voter who arrived at the proper voting location 15 minutes later than planned and didn’t vote because she didn’t feel like waiting in line. Really.
The division did post signs at the old locations and updated its website but didn’t notify the Anchorage municipal clerk, publicize the change in a newspaper or send direct mailers to voters. Those are the requirements set under state law for polling location changes, which the state had argued only applied to permanent moves and not temporary ones like this one. Garton’s report finds they apply to any moves but notes that the law only requires the state to undertake what is actually feasible given the time constraints.
Garton found that the state should have done more to notify voters according to state law—specifically notifying the municipal clerk about the change—but found that it didn’t rise to the necessary level of “malconduct” that’s required to challenge an election result under state law.
“It is reasonable to assume that the more notice there is of polling place change the less turnout will be lowered by the change. But this court cannot determine by what increment additional feasible notice under (state law), such as notifying the municipal clerk, would have mitigated any reductions in turnout caused by the polling place change sufficient to change the result in the election,” Garton wrote.
And despite the state’s failure to follow the law perfectly—again, because the state has argued that this law applies only to permanent moves and not temporary moves—Garton says that it’s possible that the moves taken were better than the ones prescribed by law, such as the notifying the Anchorage municipal clerk.
She found Ruedrich’s testimony “flawed” because it failed to provide any concrete evidence connecting the change of polling location to the slightly lower turnout, which Garton notes could have been explained by many other unexplored factors.
“The court cannot find that, even if there was an Election Day undervote in 27-915 (which is not clear), and even if the undervote was solely the result of the change in the polling place (which is not clear), the Division’s failure to notify the municipal clerk caused a reduction in votes sufficient to change the result of the election,” Garton wrote. “There is no evidence in the record quantifying how much less Election Day turnout would have been affected by a last-minute polling place change had perfect notice been provided.”
Garton’s report on the election challenge lawsuit essentially is teeing up the issue for the Alaska Supreme Court to rule on in a manner that will allow for the case to be resolved quickly without kicking it back to Garton for an updated ruling and a potential second appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. The Alaska Legislature is set to convene on Jan. 19, 2021.
Briefings filed by the state and Synder’s attorneys lambast Pruitt’s arguments. Snyder’s team called them a “feeble attempt” to prove harm while poking several holes in the testimony of the lone Republican voter and undercut Ruedrich’s credibility in the case.
“Ruerich’s testimony was akin to an assertion that, due to his familiarity with Alaska voters and elections, we should just take his word for it,” argued Snyder’s team.
The state’s team was similarly scathing in its assessment of Ruedrich’s testimony, simply writing that he is “not credible” and failed to understand even the basic nuance of the polling location move: Namely how much of the alleged problem was due to the permissible move and how much was due to the alleged failures in public notice.
Voter fraud allegations
Pruitt’s team has also at various points in the legal challenge attempted to accuse a varying number of voters of fraudulently participating in the 2020 election, citing a litany of public records such as pay stub addresses in campaign finance reports and property sales records. Garton refused to allow the records in as evidence, noting that not only is such a challenge not permissible at this stage but that there’s a very real danger in accusing people of fraud without any factual basis.
Garton’s orders today doesn’t dive into the issues as she’s already denied even accepting into the record the documents that Pruitt’s team claims are evidence of voter fraud.
The state’s legal briefing, though, does wade into why the whole issue is problematic from the get-go, arguing that there’s good reason to give voters the benefit of the doubt on residency matters.
“Minor residency issues are not grounds to hold a new election,” argues the state. “This is support by public policy. As previously explained in the election contest matter, if nonresident voting could void an election—whether by way of an election contest or recount appeal—any close election would be an invitation for campaign to comb through property records in an amateur investigative effort to uncover a handful of people who have recently moved. Voters would be harassed and publicly accused of wrongdoing on thin evidence, as exemplified by Mr. Pruitt’s flawed motion for judicial notice. Not only that, but the ‘cure’ for the problem—a new election—would really be no cure at all. A new election would be no more likely to be ‘perfect,’ from a voter residency perspective, than the original one. In the interim, more voters would have moved. And if the original election was close, the new election would likely be close too, spurring repeated challenges and making finality elusive.”
The state also notes that because Pruitt failed to challenge residency at the right time—before the ballots were opened and separated from their identifying envelopes—that there’s no practical way to separate out the in-question ballots.
“None of these ballots are identifiable at this point, which means they cannot be counted or rejected even if these voters were in fact not qualified to vote.”