Borough's report upholds election
Mistakes were made during the Oct. 1 municipal election, but they were not egregious enough to warrant overturning the results and ordering a new election, according to a report written by Haines Borough staff and accepted by the assembly Tuesday.
The assembly voted 5-0 to certify the election. Member Norm Smith was absent.
school board candidate Ardy Miller, who challenged the election, did not return calls for comment by press time Wednesday on whether she would appeal the assembly’s decision.
Borough attorney Brooks Chandler, prime author of the 24-page investigation report, presented it during a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday.
The report said the rejection of “undervoted” ballots was a new phenomenon experienced by voters due to a change to a roster-style ballot. (Undervoted refers to a voted ballot on which voters chose to not mark preferences for as many seats as were open.)
The report said the language and tone used by election workers to explain the rejection didn’t constitute an attempt to coerce or influence voters.
“No election worker forced a voter to return to the voting booth. No election worker did anything other than provide the voter the option to return to the voting booth or to have their vote accepted as originally cast using the ‘override’ function of the voting machine. At the end of the day, the decision whether to vote for an additional candidate was the voter’s alone to make and all votes ultimately cast were a product of the voter’s free will,” the report said.
On Oct. 17, Chandler interviewed election workers Jeanette Heinrich, Leslee Downer, Donna Catotti, Ramona Holmes, Diann Ahrens, Frankie Perry, Beverly Leak and Terry Shaw. Each said voters weren’t told they “should” go back into the booth, but instead were informed they could “choose” to reenter the booth and more completely fill out their ballots.
Catotti, who worked at precinct one at the American Bald Eagle Foundation, said poll workers weren’t provided a protocol on how to deal with the large numbers of rejected ballots, but said she heard co-workers at the Accu-Vote machine “offering people the choice...every single time.”
“They could go back and choose more, but they certainly didn’t have to,” Catotti said.
Dana Hallett, the only voter to speak at the investigation hearing who cast his ballot in person on election day, said his ballot was rejected three or four times before a poll worker came over to help him.
Though the woman was “very professional” and “appropriate,” Hallett said he didn’t like that the worker could see his ballot – he claimed the privacy sleeve wasn’t used when his ballot was rejected.
“I think that the election was flawed... We really need to not certify this election and do it again,” Hallett said.
During the investigation, borough clerk Julie Cozzi, who oversees local elections, testified that she previously instructed Dominion, the company responsible for programming the Accu-Vote machines, to program the machines to reject undervoted ballots, overvoted ballots and ballots that were entirely blank.
The machine, however, was not programmed to reject ballots on which voters chose to not mark a preference in an individual race. Thus, the undervoting rejection mechanism was effectively “inert” until this year’s election, Cozzi said.
As she does every election, Cozzi tested several ballots with different voting configurations marked to see how the machine would respond. Though she saw the undervoted ballot was kicked back, Cozzi said she “never imagined” so many people would undervote and that it would become an issue.
“I just missed that possibility that there could be that many,” Cozzi said.
Election worker Frankie Perry, who was in charge of polls at the Klehini Valley Fire Department, said while Cozzi went over the election rules with her the night prior and discussed the new roster system, she wasn’t given instructions on how to deal with the rejection of undervoted ballots and wasn’t warned they would be kicked back.
“We thought there was something wrong with the machine,” said election worker Terry Shaw. The workers were brought up to speed only after phoning the borough and speaking with deputy clerk Michelle Webb.
After that, voters whose ballots were rejected for undervoting were told they could vote for two assembly members and three school board members, or they could choose to submit the ballot as-is.
Absentee voters received no instructions concerning undervoting issue and there was a higher percentage of undervoting on ballots cast absentee.
Chandler said there was no way to determine if returning to the voting booth after undervoting changed the results of the election. He said that voters returning to the voting booth wouldn’t necessarily favor one candidate or another.
Regarding the presence of a copy of the Chilkat Valley News at the polling place, the investigation concluded “having the newspaper in the polling place was a mistake but this mistake was not sufficient to change the result of the election and does not appear to be an intentional effort to ‘electioneer’ on behalf of any particular candidate.”
The election investigation committee (Chandler, Cozzi and Webb) recommended the assembly direct the borough clerk to change the Accu-Vote programming for the 2014 election so undervoted ballots are not rejected.
Several assembly members, before certifying the election, referred to the experience as “a learning process.” “We will make it better,” said assembly member Joanne Waterman. “We will make the changes that need to be changed.”
Assembly member Steve Vick acknowledged mistakes were made but said he didn’t believe the confusion favored any one candidate, and couldn’t find a reason not to certify the election.