In a squeaker of an election, incumbent Homer City Council member Bryan Zak made up a four-vote deficit in unofficial election day results to win re-election to a third term.
After the city elections canvass board tallied absentee and other votes last Friday, and after a recount on Tuesday, Zak won with 546 votes over Corbin Arno’s 536 votes — a 10-vote lead.
The leader in the four-man race for two council seats, Gus VanDyke, kept his first-place finish, with 651 votes. Justin Arnold, the man who guided the successful citizen referendum to repeal the plastic bag ban, came in fourth, with 292 votes.
The initiative to repeal a ban on retailers providing onion-skin thin plastic bags won with 661 yes votes to 518 no votes.
The repeal will go into effect when the Homer City Council certifies the election Oct. 14, and retailers can once again provide customers with the plastic shopping bags.
Zak acknowledged Arno’s strong finish and his hard work in the campaign.
“I hope that he continues to be involved,” Zak said of Arno. “I thought he ran a good race. It’s exciting. All politics is local. When you do stand up to run for the election at a local level, or any level, it’s a commitment.”
Zak congratulated political newcomer VanDyke on his win. A mechanic and the owner of Scruggs Automotive, VanDyke had been endorsed by Homer Voice for Business, as had Arno.
“I’m really looking forward to having another voice on the board there. I’m looking forward to things he said in the debates about speaking up for the people,” Zak said of VanDyke. “I think he brings with him some fresh ideas and maybe some business experience.”
The final results took a slight detour after the canvass board met last Friday when fourth-place candidate Justin Arnold filed an application for a recount later that afternoon — the first recount since 1999. Arno picked up one vote in the recount and the “no” votes on the plastic-bag ban lost a vote. Arno and Zak watched the recount. After the results were announced, they shook hands.
“I didn’t expect anything to change,” Arno said of the recount.
In asking for a recount, Arnold cited the close race as his reason.
“It would be beneficial to the entire community,” he said.
Arnold said he had talked to Arno about the recount, but did it on his own. Arnold also said he felt a machine count would not be accurate and asked for a hand recount.
“I’ve never really trusted the idea of putting all our trust in a fallible machine made by man,” Arnold said.
Homer City Attorney Thomas Klinkner advised City Clerk Jo Johnson that the city did not have to do a hand recount. Homer city code follows the same procedures set out in state law for requesting a recount. Under Alaska Statutes, a defeated candidate or 10 qualified voters who believe there has been a mistake made by an election official can file an application for a recount. If the difference is 20 votes or less, the city pays for the recount — the cost of paying election officials and city workers.
Arnold also had asked that ballots be kept in Homer Police custody before the recount. Klinkner also said the city didn’t have to do that. The ballots were kept in a locked vault at Homer City Hall between the canvass board meeting and Tuesday’s recount.
Three Homer Police officers came to the recount at the request of the clerk’s office after Arnold got in a heated discussion with Johnson over doing a hand recount. Johnson consulted with Klinkner by phone, and agreed to let Arnold examine the ballots and do his own unofficial hand count.
Sitting at the council table, Arnold examined each of 592 ballots cast in precinct number 1 under the watchful eyes of Johnson, two election workers, deputy clerk Melissa Jacobsen, Zak and Arno, council member Barbara Howard, personnel director Andrea Petersen and several journalists. Arnold turned each page and methodically recorded votes.
Arnold said his hand recount for precinct 1 agreed with the machine recount tally, but both gave one vote less to Zak than the election day count. Arnold cited that as proof that the machine count was flawed.
“I do not believe machines are accurate,” he said. “Obviously there is something to it.”
Ballots were run through the city’s AccuVote machines. AccuVote is a brand name for a voting machine that scans and counts paper ballots where voters fill in bubbles next to the selected candidate or referendum choice.
The Alaska Division of Elections provides machines used in city elections. Division Director Gail Fenumai said it’s not unusual for counts to differ slightly. A machine might not be able to recognize a mark and reject it, she said.
Human counts also proved flawed. In counting 10 faxed and emailed ballots, the canvass board on Friday and election workers on Tuesday came up with different numbers for the council race and the referendum and had to be reconciled. Part of the confusion came about when a clerk called out the names “Arnold” and “Arno” and election workers misunderstood the similar sounding names.
After the machine count of precinct 1, Arnold again asked for a hand count. Johnson denied that request, saying the count was accurate.
“One off is not accurate,” Arnold said. “I believe it is wrong. ”
Some ballots were not counted because of overvotes, that is, bubbles filled in for more than two candidates or both “yes” and “no” in the referendum. Arnold said one overvote ballot he saw had been lightly filled in on the “no” bubble and then heavily filled in on the “yes” bubble, thus not counting the council votes. That vote went for Arno, he said.
Another ballot he saw had a write-in for the words “none of the above” and a vote for Zak, Arnold said. He didn’t bring that to Johnson’s attention at the time he saw the ballot, but told her later, he said.
The city canvass board counted 188 new ballots on Friday. Most were absentee-ballots voted in person. Sixteen questioned ballots were ruled eligible. Disqualified ballots were for voters who did not appear on registration rolls as being city residents.
The qualified questioned ballots were for city voters who voted at the wrong precinct, for example, showed up at Homer City Hall instead of the Homer Senior Center. To preserve voter secrecy, those ballots were separated from questioned ballot envelopes and counted with absentee ballots.
Four ballots were special-needs voters, that is, people who for health or other reasons could not vote in person. The tally also included 10 votes sent in by email or fax, a process allowed under city code. The board hand counted those ballots. A total of 1,232 ballots were cast out of 4,337 registered voters, a 28-percent turnout.
The city council will certify the election at its Oct. 14 meeting. Zak will be sworn in at a special meeting on Oct. 21. VanDyke will be on a previously planned vacation, Johnson said, and will be sworn in at the Nov. 25 council meeting. That would not allow him to attend an Alaska Municipal League training conference for newly elected city officials to be held in Anchorage the week of Nov. 18.