Haines Borough school board candidate Ardy Miller filed paperwork Monday to contest the Oct. 1 municipal election.
On the notice of election contest, Miller identified what she saw as two problems with the election process. First, the AccuVote machine was programmed to reject under-voted ballots, allowing voters the opportunity to re-enter the booth and fill the remainder of the ballot.
Second, Miller said she saw a copy of the Chilkat Valley News at the polling place, which would constitute electioneering, as the newspaper contained candidate information and advertisements.
“I did hear an election worker direct a voter to the newspaper when they asked a question about a candidate and the election worker said, ‘I can’t give information about candidates, but you can check the newspaper,’” Miller said in an interview Monday.
Election workers aren’t allowed to give out candidate information, and electioneering materials – including newspapers – aren’t allowed within 200 feet of the polling place, clerk Julie Cozzi said.
In an interview Monday, Cozzi said she had heard from multiple people about the newspaper’s presence at the polls. “It is one of the responsibilities of election officials to do their best to stop electioneering, and if it’s true that this election worker forgot that it wasn’t okay to even have a newspaper lying there... It wasn’t right. It wasn’t good. And that will be in our training; we’ll really try to reinforce how serious electioneering is and what form that can take,” Cozzi said.
Miller couldn’t identify the female election worker she heard recommending the voter look at the newspaper, but listed the unidentified female on the notice of election contest form under “person(s) alleged to have committed the violation.” Miller also listed election official Jeannette Heinrich.
“I’ve talked to a number of people who had concerns about how the election process was conducted. The reason that I’m contesting the election before the final votes are counted at the canvass (on Tuesday, Oct. 8) is I want it to be absolutely clear that my issue is not with who is or might be elected; it’s with the process,” Miller said.
Cozzi said the AccuVote machines have been programmed to reject under-voted ballots at least since she started on the job in 2003. Many voters were surprised this year, though, when they under-voted and were asked if they wanted to re-enter the booth and mark their ballots fully.
Concerns included issues of privacy, and the suggestion that voters were somehow “incorrectly” filling out their ballots.
“I have never had the ballot spit back before,” said Miller, “and I have under-voted for candidates before, because there was only one candidate I liked.”
Unofficial election results indicated Miller and school board candidate Scott Doddridge received 491 and 495 votes, respectively, making the race too close to call.
Canvass results extended Doddridge’s lead and put the final tallies at 508 for Miller and 517 for Doddridge, meaning Miller would lose her seat.
According to code, Miller’s submission of the election contest notice triggers an investigation by the borough attorney, clerk and manager. The investigation proceedings must be conducted publicly. Code gives the clerk, manager and attorney the authority to order the appearance of witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of books, records, paper and electronic documents, and other evidence.
A written report is then presented to the assembly.
“If it goes like it has in the past, the assembly sets a deadline for getting a report of the investigation. They always look to staff to try and determine a realistic time frame,” Cozzi said.
Assembly member Debra Schnabel said in an interview Tuesday she found it questionable that Cozzi and two other borough officials would be responsible for the investigation.
“That seems odd to me. Usually an investigation is conducted by an uninterested third party,” like the Division of Elections or the Department of Community and Regional Affairs, Schnabel said.
At Tuesday’s assembly meeting, Schnabel made a motion to include Steve Vick, chair of the Government Affairs and Services Committee, in the investigation. Schnabel explained this would add an element of impartiality to the investigation.
The rest of the assembly disagreed, however, and voted 5-1 in opposition to the motion.
The assembly unanimously agreed, however, to set a deadline for a report on the investigation for its Oct. 22 meeting.
The assembly will meet at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22 as a committee of the whole to discuss the report prior to the regular meeting.
If the investigation reveals “a mistake, misconduct, fraud, or corruption on the part of an election official sufficient to change the result of the election occurred,” the assembly has the authority to order another election.
Miller will be responsible for all costs incurred by the borough during the investigation process unless the assembly finds the election was invalid.
Mario Benassi, who lost the race for borough assembly to George Campbell and Diana Lapham, also expressed skepticism about how the election was conducted and applauded Miller’s decision to contest the process.
“I feel that it was pretty evident that the process was flawed,” Benassi said. “Whenever you’re coaching the voters and they go back to the booth to make another selection, that’s kind of an obvious problem. I’m glad someone else saw that.”