Witnesses say petitions to repeal Alaska’s election system were mishandled

a courtroom
Attorney Maeve Kendall, at podium, represents supporters of ranked choice voting. Her co-counsel are on left: Samuel Gottstein and Scott Kendall (no relation). At the other table are Assistant Attorney General Thomas Flynn and attorney Kevin Clarkson, right. (Screen shot of court live stream/ published with court’s permission)

Supporters of Alaska’s ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries were in court Monday trying to block a ballot measure that would repeal the election reforms voters adopted in 2020.

On day one of the trial before Superior Court Judge Christina Rankin, witnesses testified that they saw irregularities in how repeal sponsors collected signatures last year. Most said they saw petition booklets left unattended. Attorney Maeve Kendall, representing voters who want to keep ranked choice voting, called a witness who was a regular at Tudor Bingo last year. Dawn Dunbar testified that she saw petition books left out on a table for weeks.

“Did you ever see anyone monitoring the booklets?” the attorney asked.

“No, ma’am,” Dunbar testified. “People were picking up the booklets. People were writing on the booklets.”

Dunbar thought it was so unusual she contacted the Division of Elections.

For a petition to be valid, registered voters need to sign a petition in the presence of a circulator assigned to a particular booklet.

Kendall and other attorneys representing the pro-ranked choice side say the problems with the signature collections were so widespread that entire booklets — and all the booklets that were assigned to certain circulators — need to be thrown out. That, they say, would leave the repeal measure short of the nearly 27,000 signatures needed to be on the November ballot.

Their witnesses spoke of seeing unattended petitions at Tudor and Big Valley bingo halls, Duane’s Antique Market in Anchorage and at a business in Soldotna. Witnesses also said they saw petition booklets at the state fair that did not appear to be in the possession of the circulator they were assigned to. 

Some of the witnesses, like Gregory Lee, were paid to gather evidence. He pretended he wanted a job as a signature gatherer and spoke to a contractor for the repeal drive, Mikaela Emswiler. His recording was played in court.

“Am I allowed to leave booklets at places or with family or friends,” he said. “or do I have to … ,”

“The only thing is … I would give you extra books,” Emswiler said. “And then, in order to keep track of them, I just need a name and location address of where to keep track of it. The bingo places are — we’ve got a couple places around town that have welcomed books into their businesses. So just as long as we can keep track of everything, that would be great.”

“Okay, so if I left a book somewhere, I just need to let you know where I left them?” Lee asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” Emswiler said. “We need email — yeah, email, phone number, a point of contact and address, okay?”

Former state Attorney General Kevin Clarkson represents the sponsors of the repeal petition. He contends the exchange shows Emswiler wanted to keep track of who would be responsible for the petition, not just where it might be left.

Clarkson poked holes in the witness accounts and got most to admit that they didn’t see anyone actually signing the petitions that were said to be unattended.

Alaska’s system of a nonpartisan primary and ranked choice voting in the general was narrowly approved in the 2020 election. It is said to favor moderates, mostly because all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, regardless of party. The method is unpopular among Alaska Republicans and conservatives. They especially dislike that the first time it was deployed, in the special U.S. House election of 2022, Democrat Mary Peltola won.

The trial is expected to last into July. It will be decided by Judge Rankin, without a jury.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atlruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Lizhere.

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