May 16, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 19

Election change hits assembly opposition

Haines Borough Assembly members on Tuesday pulled from the agenda an ordinance aimed at changing assembly and school board election procedures.

The ordinance, which was spearheaded by assembly member Debra Schnabel and scheduled for introduction Tuesday, would eliminate the current system in which candidates run against one another for designated, individual seats.

Under the change, all candidate names would appear together on a single ballot. If two seats were to be filled, voters would be instructed to vote for any two candidates. The two candidates with the most votes would win seats.

Assembly member Jerry Lapp removed the ordinance from the consent agenda, saying he couldn’t support allowing the measure to move forward because the method hasn’t been vetted by a committee and would end up costing more money due to an increased incidence of run-offs.  

“If this was to ever go forward, I would want to give it to the voters first to see what they said because I wouldn’t want the assembly making this decision on how they’re going to vote. Some people I’ve talked to feel that this is wrong,” Lapp said.

Assembly member Steve Vick agreed with Lapp’s concerns, saying that if the system isn’t broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed. “What is it we’re not accomplishing that this would? What are the faults with the way we’re doing it now?” Vick asked.

Assembly members Lapp, Vick, Joanne Waterman and Norm Smith voted to send the matter to the Government Affairs and Services committee for further research and discussion. Assembly members Dave Berry and Schnabel were absent.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Schnabel said she was “very disappointed” with the ordinance’s removal from the agenda, but that she would put more work into the issue to advance it.

She cited numerous advantages, including increasing the candidate pool and creating a more democratic process. Further, designated seats don’t make sense in local elections as all candidates are elected at large and not from designated districts, Schnabel said.

“We do not have representatives by districts or by streets or by areas or by whatever. If we had representation that was designed in such a way that candidates represented a subgroup of the total population, then absolutely there would be a reason that candidates would pair off, but we do not. Our election by charter is at large for all candidates,” she said.

Pitting candidates against one another for designated seats limits a voter’s choice of candidates. “For me, the issue is that when I go to the polls as a citizen and I see a ballot that puts candidate ‘A’ versus candidate ‘B,’ and then in another box says candidate ‘C’ versus candidate ‘D.’ Really who I want is ‘A’ and ‘B’ and I don’t care about ‘C’ and ‘D,’ but I don’t have that option,” Schnabel said.

Glen Hamburg, a local government specialist with the Alaska Department of Commerce, in an email to Mayor Stephanie Scott, gave another example of how the borough’s current system is potentially unfair.

“Say Jane Doe registers as a candidate specifically for assembly seat ‘A’ and has to run against Bob Smith for that specific seat.  At the same time, maybe Sally Sue is the only person who registers as a candidate for seat ‘B.’ At the election, Jane receives 101 votes, Bob receives 145 votes, and Sally receives 60 votes.  If the election rules are such that the candidate who receives the most votes for a specific seat wins that seat, Bob would win seat ‘A’ and Sally would win seat ‘B,’ even though Sally received less votes than Jane,” Hamburg wrote.

“This system often then leads to candidates strategizing over which seat they’ll run for given who their challengers might be,” Hamburg added.

Schnabel agreed that the current system does encourage manipulation and strategizing. Candidates will file their paperwork for a seat then withdraw when they are made aware of who they are running against, and then re-file for what they might perceive is an “easier” seat against a “weaker” candidate, Schnabel said.

Mayor Scott said in an interview Tuesday she supports the change, as it would promote fairness and put all candidates on equal footing. “The focus is on the role, the fulfilling of the duties of a member of the assembly. You don’t have to talk about how this person or that person would do it... Basically, you’re running in the pack and everybody gets to be evaluated,” Scott said.

Scott said Craig, Ketchikan and other communities use the roster method and she is researching how that system is working out for them.

Assembly member Norm Smith also said in an interview Tuesday he would support the change. “I think it’s a great idea. It will encourage more people to run,” he said.

In an interview, manager Mark Earnest said he was reserving judgment on the matter until he sees more information, but said he doesn’t see a problem with the current system.

The ordinance’s passage is on a time crunch if it is to be used in October municipal elections, as it must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, Schnabel said.

Earnest pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that election policy changes usually don’t take effect until the following year to avoid a perception of an attempt to alter or influence the upcoming elections.

Seats currently held by Vick and Smith will open in October. Vick said he doesn’t intend to run again this fall. Smith would not reveal his intentions.

The Government Affairs and Services committee will discuss the proposed change in election procedures at 4:30 p.m. on May 23.