May 13, 2010 |

Election rule change fuels assembly spat

The Haines Borough Assembly last week tangled over a draft ordinance revising local election laws, sending the proposed law to its government services committee for review after a heated discussion.

The borough is seeking to clarify its election rules in the wake of a successful lawsuit brought by voters last fall that overturned results of an election for an assembly seat.

Assembly members Steve Vick, Daymond Hoffman, Norm Smith, and Joanne Waterman opposed draft revisions to the law drawn up by the borough clerk’s office.

Assemblymen Scott Rossman and Jerry Lapp voted to send the draft ordinance to its first public hearing as written, saying it clarified local procedures.

The government services committee will take up the ordinance at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 20 in assembly chambers.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit contested the results of an election recount in which the borough assembly threw out five ballots for write-in candidate Daymond Hoffman: Three ballots on which the voter had not spelled out Hoffman’s first name, and two absentee ballots that arrived without a postmark.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins’ decision to count the ballots overturned the election, which the assembly had decided 439-437 in favor of candidate Gary Lidholm, and gave Hoffman the assembly seat.

Key to the plaintiffs’ case was a clause in borough code stating that state election law shall apply in matters upon which the local law is silent. The code has no provisions about how the name of a write-in candidate shall appear on a ballot, but state law says the name of the candidate as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy or the last name of the candidate shall be counted.

In a memo to the assembly last week, clerk Julie Cozzi said her office had worked hard to revise the borough’s election code to "strengthen and clarify our home-rule borough election laws while protecting the voters’ rights of appeal by providing clear procedures."

Cozzi said she and deputy clerk Jamie Heinz had undertaken the code revisions at the direction of former interim manager Bob Ward, and said considerable research in to laws adopted by other municipalities had gone into the draft. Much of the language came from the Mat-Su Borough code, Cozzi said.

"It’s a starting place," Cozzi said. "It’s to get something on the table so you can start working on it. It’s not the clerk’s office trying to ram anything down anyone’s throat. It’s our best effort."

The draft revisions codify clear rules for write-in candidates, stating voters must clearly mark the oval opposite the candidates name, and must "write in the name as the write-in candidate’s name appears on the letter of intent filed with the borough clerk."

The draft also contains a clause stating absentee ballots received without a postmark will not be counted, and says "provisions of Alaska (election) statutes…shall not apply to the conduct of municipal elections unless otherwise provided herein…"

Assemblyman Steve Vick was critical of the clerk’s revisions. "It may make it legal, but it does not make it agreeable."

Vick said the borough’s draft revisions favored clarity over the intent of voters, and said the state law better protected citizens’ constitutional right to vote. "The primary concern for me is that the right of the voter doesn’t get dismissed for over-restrictive guidelines they have to follow."

Vick said state law might hold up better in court than a law the borough wrote, and said mandating the exact spelling of a name or requiring a postmark when the state accepted a signed, witnessed ballot envelope, was excluding voters. "This is the total opposite way I think we should be going."

"I do have concerns," said assemblywoman Joanne Waterman, saying the proposed local laws seemed counter to state election law and Collins’ ruling.

"Maybe I’m wrong, but my impression reading the changes is that…the language in this seems to support more heavily the stance that the borough took when we entered the court case, which we lost. So I’m in a quandary about some of the language changes and the emphasis that was put on certain things."

Smith said he thought code revisions should respond to each one of Judge Collins’ critiques of the borough’s code, and said he didn’t see any rush to revise the law.

Rossman said a home-rule borough had authority to supercede state law, and said the problem with the old law is that it deferred to state law where the code was silent.

The code revisions proposed by the clerk’s office did a good job of clarifying local election procedures, he said, commending hard work by staff on the issue. "This makes it absolutely clear what you have to do, when you have to do it, and how you have to do it, so I don’t see how it’s a bad thing.

"I don’t know what the mystery is, and I don’t know what you’re bashing Julie for, about doing her job."

Hoffman said he did not discount the effort put into the draft, but said he thought the revisions reinforced the position the borough had taken when it lost the election case in court and thus invited future legal challenges.

Lapp thanked Cozzi and Heinz for their work on the ordinance, and said the revisions cleaned up local laws. Voters should be responsible for making sure ballots were postmarked, he said.

Lapp said residency requirements in code should be upped from 30 to 180 days.