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Report on Anchorage Ballot Problems Highlights Importance of Turnout to Election Planning

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[images courtesy of panoramio]

Dan Hensley, an outside attorney hired to investigate Anchorage's troubled April election delivered his report to the Anchorage City Assembly last week.

The report highlights management issues in the municipal clerk's office - including the clerk's "hands off" style that led to inattention to election preparations by the deputy clerk - but Hensley found that the biggest problem contributing to the widespread ballot shortages on April 3 was the deputy clerk's failure to anticipate voter turnout. In particular, he found that the combination of a mayoral election year and a controversial gay rights initiative should have alerted the deputy to the strong likelihood of a turnout above the levels experienced in 2010 and 2011. Moreover, he learned that other members of the staff had alerted the deputy to higher rates of absentee ballot requests - a key indicator of turnout - which she failed to take into account.

Now, I know I have already gone on record on this blog warning against the use of turnout to evaluate election laws - and nothing here changes my opinion on that subject. In this case, however, turnout is not being used to evaluate election administration after Election Day but rather to inform it before Election Day. Specifically, anticipating turnout is important because it helps election offices do what apparently didn't happen in Anchorage: determine the supply of ballots necessary to meet the likely demand.

Hensley himself recognizes that this isn't an exact science; in fact, he notes at the end of his report that in his discussions with the state and other local election offices he was cautioned against recommending fixed written guidelines which they feared would be applied rigidly without taking advantage of institutional knowledge and common sense. Still, he says given the importance of those factors the Anchorage clerk may want to decide whether it makes sense to commit at least some of those guidelines to writing. He also agrees with a recommendation that the City consider using "ballot distribution centers" to serve as distribution points for backup ballots in the event of future shortages .

The report is a very illuminating look at what went wrong in Anchorage in April. It's a fascinating read - and well worth the the time for anyone worried about election offices having enough ballots to meet the demand at the polls.

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