By SUZANNE DOWNING
With the stroke of a pen, a Superior Court judge in Anchorage has thrown the democratic election process into complete turmoil in Alaska.
Judge Una Gandbhir, with just one day before the end of a 44-day election cycle, has ruled that the special primary election results for the congressional race cannot be certified until the State Division of Elections makes sure all vision-impaired voters have access to adaptive computer devices allowing them to vote privately through the internet.
The special primary election is over a 8 pm on Saturday. That’s when the ballots would normally be counted and the bulk of the results announced by 9 pm. More counting and release of results would take place on the 15th, 17th, and 21st of July. Certification is set for the 25th. The top four vote-getters would be ready to go to the special general election, to be held on Aug. 16 along with the regular primary election.
It was always confusing, but now it’s pure chaos.
But Judge Gandbhir has created a corruptible or at least highly suspect election because, if the votes are counted on Saturday night as expected, and a result between two candidates is close, that means the visually impaired voters who have yet to vote will have more information than all the other 130,000 voters who had cast their ballots without knowing who is ahead.
Here’s a sample scenario that makes fraud possible: A close race between, say, Mary Peltola and Tara Sweeney for that coveted fourth place on general election ballot, would give a few vision-impaired voters the ability to sway the election with their votes, if the results are announced Saturday. That is why the results cannot be announced — a few voters would have the possibility of deciding that fourth slot on the ballot because they would go into the voting booth with more information.
It’s outrageous. But it didn’t need to happen. The director of the Division of Elections made the decision soon after the death of Congressman Don Young that the only way to stay on a schedule that meets the statutory requirements for temporarily filling the congressional seat was to do an all-mail-in election.
Gail Fenumiai, the director, said in March that a regularly conducted primary could not be done because she did not have time to hire and train temporary election workers and deploy them around the state in all the precincts.
And so here we are, with a court case that shows that Fenumiai erred in recommending the state just turn to an all-mail election. In hindsight, it would have been better to bring back all the former election workers and stand up an election in the traditional method.
Instead, Alaska is at a crossroads where if the votes that have been cast are not counted, and are just sitting in a vault, the voters will have even less confidence in the Division of Elections than they now do. And their confidence is already shaken.
Or, if the Division of Elections counts the ballots on Saturday but does not release the results until the blind voters have had a chance to use an adaptive device, the electorate will lose all confidence. Voters will have suspicions that the results will be leaked to a chosen few, and there will be no convincing them otherwise.
The Gandbhir ruling creates the perfect storm in a year when Ballot Measure 2, with its jungle primary and ranked choice general election, has already created chaos and distrust in our election system.
In fact, an argument can be made that Ballot Measure 2 led us to this place, where we have to have a primary and a general just to fill a four- or five-month seat in Congress. Under our former system, we could have done the job with just one election, but no, Ballot Measure 2 forces Alaska into two elections for the temporary seat, and two elections for the regular seat — four statewide elections in one year, driving up costs and driving down confidence.
This becomes even more tangled because the author of Ballot Measure 2 is also working as the lawyer for the independent expenditure group for candidate Sweeney.
Yes, that old name Scott Kendall — the chief of staff for former Gov. Bill Walker, and author of so many bad ideas in Alaska — brought Ballot Measure 2 to voters with the help of millions of Outside dollars, convincing voters this would be a more civilized way to do elections.
Knowing that Kendall is involved in the congressional races, which could be decided by a handful of blind voters, is disconcerting. Giving Kendall a few more days to muck around in our elections is a scary thought. But watching a judge rule that an election cannot be certified is nothing short of election interference by the courts.
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska.