Lawsuit asserts Alaska elections officials illegally certified ballot question on ranked choice voting

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Apr. 2—Three Alaska voters filed a complaint Tuesday against the state Division of Elections asserting that it violated state law when it certified a ballot measure that seeks to repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries.

The Division of Elections certified last month that a grassroots group successfully gathered the signatures needed to put a question on the 2024 general election ballot on repealing Alaska's voting system — which was itself narrowly approved by voters through a 2020 ballot measure.

The complaint filed in Anchorage Superior Court asserts that the ballot group "intentionally conducted their signature petition drive illegally, thereby disqualifying thousands of signatures." Without those signatures, the complaint asserts that the petition fails to meet requirements and should be invalidated.

The named defendants in the case are Division of Elections Director Carol Beecher, the Division of Elections, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstom — who oversees Alaska elections. In an email, Beecher said the complaint is "under review" and directed questions to the Department of Law. Dahlstrom, a Republican running for U.S. House, directed questions to the Department of Law through her chief of staff Kelly Howell. Patty Sullivan, a spokesperson for the department, said the complaint was received and was being reviewed.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall, who was a leading advocate for Alaska's current voting system and has since sought to defend it.

Alaska's new voting system, first used in 2022, includes open nonpartisan primary elections. The top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election. The general election is determined by ranked-choice voting. Alaska was the second state to adopt ranked choice voting for statewide elections, after Maine.

Supporters of the voting method, including Kendall, have said it reduces hyper-partisanship and favors candidates that can appeal to a wider swath of the electorate. Detractors of the system say that it disadvantages political parties, which have less power to choose their desired candidates. Detractors also say the voting system is confusing, thus disenfranchising some voters, including minority voters.

The complaint contains two primary allegations. The first is that the sponsors of the ballot initiative, including Wasilla resident Phillip Izon and Anchorage resident Art Mathias, intentionally broke the law by instructing signature gatherers to leave signature booklets unattended. The second is that the Division of Elections unlawfully allowed the ballot group to notarize several signature booklets after they were submitted.

The complaint asserts that if the court finds either allegation to be independently true, the petition should be disqualified.

In an interview Tuesday, Izon said the ballot group, called Alaskans for Honest Elections, would not intervene in the lawsuit.

"Everything that was done was per the Division of Elections. They're the ones that instructed us and told us what we had to do. We're not even entering into the lawsuit because we feel comfortable with everything," said Izon.

According to the complaint, the Division of Elections received "numerous complaints" about petition booklets being left unattended. The division "repeatedly warned" the group leaders about the practice.

Signature gatherers left the booklets unattended "at various places of business" and then falsely certified that the booklets had remained in their possession, according to the complaint. Under Alaska law, the signature gatherers must certify that "the signatures were made in the circulator's actual presence." If that requirement is not met, the statute stipulates that the signatures should not be counted.

Beecher with the Division of Elections called sponsors of the petition to warn them about accusations of unattended signature booklets in July, regarding a booklet left at Duane's Antique Market in Anchorage. In October, Division Operations Manager Michaela Thompson contacted the sponsors about two booklets left unattended at the Tudor Bingo Center in Anchorage.

Izon said, "There were books that were unattended, but we did not submit those books."

The complaint lists 22 individuals who are believed to have left petition booklets unattended, including Izon. Those individuals committed perjury — a felony offense — by certifying that they kept the booklet in their possession, according to the complaint. Those individuals collectively certified over 110 petition booklets, accounting for around 12,000 signatures.

Last month, the division concluded that the petition had met requirements by including more than 37,000 valid signatures, far more than the minimum 26,700 needed to appear on the ballot. But the signatures must also meet geographical distribution requirements, with a minimum number coming from three-quarters of state House districts.

The complaint also asserts that when the ballot sponsors filed their petition on Jan. 12, "dozens of the individual signature petition booklets were not properly notarized as required by law."

The division initially declined to count the signatures in 61 of the petition booklets. One of them was incorrectly dated, and the other 60 were notarized by Catherine Rittgers, who did have a notary commission at the time she purported to act as a notary.

The division allowed the petition sponsors to collect those petition booklets and notarize them with a valid notary. In February, the sponsors returned 59 of the booklets and they were ultimately counted by the division. The complaint alleges that the division did not have the authority to allow the sponsors to "cure" their petition once it was submitted, meaning all 61 of the booklets initially found to be lacking required information should have been thrown out.

Subtracting the signatures collected in booklets that were left unattended — or in books that were not properly notarized before their submission — the petition would not meet the minimum signature requirements to put the question on the ballot, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs asked the court to invalidate the signatures in booklets that were left unattended or not properly certified, and to declare that the petition had not met the required signature count needed to appear on the ballot.

The three Alaska voters who filed the complaint are Elizabeth Medicine Crow, a Kake resident and former president of the First Alaskans Institute; Amber Lee, an Anchorage resident and political consultant; and Kevin McGee, an Anchorage resident and past president of the Anchorage branch of the NAACP.

Leaders of the ballot group were found earlier this year to have violated the state's campaign finance reporting statutes. Alaska's campaign ethics commission fined Izon, Mathias, their ballot group, and a church they formed through which they funneled their financing more than $94,000 for their violations. Izon and Mathias are challenging some of those fines in a separate case before the Anchorage Superior Court.

Izon said Tuesday that the ballot group had stopped collecting campaign contributions following last year's campaign finance complaints, but had resumed fundraising late last month. Within several days, Izon said the group raised $5,000. However, he said he is not counting on support from national groups.

"We're going to spend maybe $100,000 on this whole campaign, and we're still going to win," he said.

A pro-ranked choice voting group, Alaskans for Better Elections, has already spent far more than that in its quest to preserve ranked choice voting in Alaska, with contributions coming primarily from national organizations.