Alaska’s strange election season of 2016 got even stranger on Friday with the website Must Read Alaska reporting a state Senate candidate might have vaulted onto the November ballot despite his failure to clear a key legal hurdle.
“When Vince Beltrami filed signatures to run as an independent candidate, he came up short. He had 70 verified signatures. He needed 170,” Suzanne Downing reported on the website. “But the Division of Elections certified Beltrami anyway, ignoring state law.”
Reached by telephone late Friday afternoon, Beltrami said he thought he submitted about 100 signatures. He could not remember exactly how many. He had not heard of the complaint raised about his filing.
His recollection was that the state Division of Elections told him he needed 70, but that he collected about 25 percent more.
The law itself says a candidate needs the signatures of qualified voters “equal in number to at least 1 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the proposed nominee’s respective house or senate district in the preceding general election,” but no less than 50 signatures no matter how small the voter turnout.
Beltrami, a Democrat-leaning independent, is challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Cathy Giessel in Senate District N where about 17,000 votes were cast in the last general election. One percent of that would be 170.
Beltrami admitted he was not intimately familiar with the filing requirements and counted on the advice of state elections officials to tell him how many signatures he needed to qualify.
Struggling election division
The Beltrami case puts the Division of Elections once more back in the news. It has had some problems under new director Josie Bahnke. Lt. Govenor Byron Mallott, a long time Democrat, picked her in late July to replace Gail Fenumiai, who resigned after summer disagreements with the administration of Gov. Bill Walker and Mallott.
Fenumiai spent 10 years working for the election division before taking over as director in 2008. Bahnke stepped in with no experience running elections. At the time of her appointment, she was the city manager of Nome, the community of 3,800 on the edge of the Bering Sea at the north end of the Iditarod Trail.
Under Bahnke’s leadership, the division of elections ended up in court after voters in the Northwest Alaska village of Shungnak were allowed to vote both Republican and Democrat primary ballots in violation of state law. The key race in the region was for the state House where Democrat Dean Westlake from Kotzebue was challenging incumbent Democrat Ben Nageak from Barrow.
There was no Republican entered in the race, meaning the primary outcome would decide the election. None of the Republican primary ballots were counted in Shungnak. All of the Democrat primary ballots were counted. Westlake carried the village 48-2. He then won the district-wide election by only seven votes.
Nageak sued, citing the problem in Shugnak and problems elsewhere in District 40. A state Superior Court judge ruled there was malconduct in Shungnak and then came up with a complicated plan for trying to figure out how the vote might have gone if the votes had split along historic D-R lines in the village. The recount after that gave an election victory to Nageak.
The state appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the decision in a brief, two-page opinion and gave Nageak the win. It has yet to publish its full written opinion explaining why. Justice Daniel Winfree took up most of the second page of the original ruling with his dissenting and concurring opinion in which he said that in his “view the Superior Court correctly determined that – as to the primary election in the Shugnak precinct – the Division of Elections committed malconduct that could have affected the election result….”
And now comes what could be a lack of election oversight in seeing to it that a candidate meets the minimum bar for entering a race.
Not that anyone believes Beltrami would have had much trouble in obtaining the extra signatures if he’d been required to do so. It’s a lot easier to obtain signatures than to raise the cash necessary to win elections. And Beltrami, a former journalist turned labor leader turned politician, had at last report raised about $200,000 to fuel his effort to topple Geissel in a hotly contested race in a district that includes the Anchorage Hillside.
He has run an interesting campaign focused heavily on claiming Geissel has unfairly accused him of this and that. The tactic makes it possible for him to portray himself a victim while attacking her. Political pollsters say the race is at the moment too close to call.