2014/01/11 (AK) Concerns about potential procedural changes for Anchorage elections


Letter of concern pertaining to three potential procedural changes pending for Anchorage, the electoral region which dominates the state of Alaska, and controls most of Alaska’s vote-counting equipment. (Result: Right to observe and use mobile devices was preserved after proposed rollback of rights.)

Black Box Voting is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public education and research organization for election transparency.

From: Bev Harris, Executive Director, Black Box Voting:

I would like to address three areas of concern for election policy in the municipality of Anchorage: Right to observe pre-and post-election processes; right to use mobile devices during elections; and issues on changing election dates.

The internationally accepted Declaration of Principles for Election Observation states that: “Genuine democratic elections are an expression of sovereignty, which belongs to the people of a country, the free expression of whose will provides the basis for the authority and legitimacy of government.”

1) Right to observe elections: Election observation rights have become widely accepted around the world, and play an important role in providing accurate and impartial assessments about elections. According to the Declaration of Principles for Election Observation, prepared by representatives of at least 23 major election and democracy bodies including the Carter Center, election observation must include pre-election, election-day and post-election periods. Observation promotes participation and helps mitigate the potential for election-related conflict. It also serves to enhance public understanding of the democratic process, and helps to improve electoral processes.

In order for election observers to effectively and credibly conduct their work, basic conditions must be met, including access to all stages of the election. Therefore, in keeping with valuable and internationally accepted election observation guidelines, Anchorage should explicitly protect pre- and post-election observation rights.

2) Mobile devices: As technology advances, challenges and opportunities come with it. In certain limited cases, use of mobile devices may threaten voter privacy, but in broader cases the same mobile devices vastly improve election integrity and voter confidence. Therefore, rather than banning the technology, law must be crafted to preserve and enhance its democratic potential, while limiting encroachment on privacy rights.

In general, Freedom of Information law follows the principle of broad inclusion of right to information, permitting narrow exemptions only. Two limited exemptions apply to freedom of information in elections: (1) prevention of information capture which connects voter’s name his ballot choices; and (2) protection of sensitive personal privacy information, such as Social Security number.

Because free speech rights and freedom of the press depend on freedom of information in order to obtain unbiased, factual information, impeding mobile device capture of election processes violates a number of fundamental rights, protected by the US Constitution and also enumerated in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which applies internationally.

Use of mobile devices can create an independent, durable, unbiased, and nonpartisan record: International principles for election observation, while not contemplating current use of technology at the time they were written, certainly would embrace the use of mobile devices during elections. Because capturing a visual record (photograph or video) creates an impartial factual record, removed from political bias, it creates a common factual point of reference for all persons interested in the elections. It is process oriented, not tied to any particular electoral result, and is concerned with results only to the degree that they are reported honestly and accurately in a transparent and timely manner.

A primary goal for election observers is to ensure that all of their observations are accurate. The use of mobile devices can help tremendously by creating a provably accurate record.

Two examples – Mobile devices improve electoral processes:

a. Afghanistan is widely considered to be one of the world’s most troubled locations,1 and that includes its very controversial, and sometimes violent, elections. James Long, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-San Diego, was awarded a grant through the US Agency for International Development. Long and a colleague recruited Afghan volunteers to take photos of vote tallies at polling sites during the 2010 election, a low-cost method of detecting and reducing ballot tampering. Most notably, the project managed to gather more data than the largest election monitoring group in the country — a remarkable return on a relatively small investment.

b. Crowdsourcing in Kenya: A problem in many locations, including occasional elections in the USA, has been assuring the integrity of aggregated results (combined results after they leave the polling place). In developing nations election-related violence can also be a problem. The 2013 Kenyan election, according to the Carter Center, was marred by the inability of observers to obtain credible disaggregated results; in other words, they could not compare polling place results, which were deemed credible and reliable by observation teams, with announced aggregated results, which were deemed not credible.2

A successful implementation of crowdsourced mobile phone use for elections was deployed in Kenya and has now expanded to use in other countries: Ushahidi, Inc. collects observer information, offering a way to enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. The Ushahidi mobile device networking project has since been used to improve safety and democracy in 22 countries — In fact, the same technical solution has even been deployed for disaster notification and crime prevention (Ushahidi was used to track the 2011 Missouri River floods in the US).

It would be regressive, and ultimately undemocratic, to legislate a wholesale ban on mobile devices during election processes. In fact, wise use of these devices may become one of the most cost-effective ways to improve election transparency, and therefore, public confidence in elections.

3) Moving election days for near-term elections: According to the Freedom in the World survey,3 which provides an annual evaluation of the state of each nation’s freedom grounded in basic standards of political rights, one of the factors evaluated for each nation’s electoral integrity is that changes to electoral laws must not be made immediately preceding an election, and also that elections must not be moved or delayed if the delays can be politically motivated (for example, when a stakeholder, or one holding current office, can vote or participate in administrative decisions to delay an election in which he might be replaced.) For example, California recognizes the undesirability of changing election procedures too close to an election, requiring at least a six-month moratorium in election changes before the election the change would impact.

If decisions are to be made to any election date, best practices would indicate that they should be made no sooner than six months prior to the next election which would be affected.

I hope this information has been helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.

Bev Harris – Black Box Voting

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Election protection tools: Advocacy – How to provide public testimony – http://blackboxvoting.org/election-protection-tools-how-to-provide-public-testimony

All Black Box Voting stories related to Alaska: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/alaska/

Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation – Written by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs; contains internationally accepted standards for election observation endorsed by over 20 international election and democracy organizations. Link to full document (PDF): https://www.ndi.org/files/1923_declaration_102705_0.pdf


Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/election-transparency/

Freedom of Information (FOI laws) – allow public access to data held by government, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions. Also called open records or sunshine laws. Governments are bound by a duty to publish and promote openness. Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country

Organizations mentioned in this report:

Black Box Voting: A US-based advocacy organization for election transparency http://blackboxvoting.org

Carter Center – a nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn; works to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering. Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Center

US Agency for International Development (USAID) – a U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. The organization’s believes that ending extreme poverty requires enabling inclusive, sustainable growth; promoting free, peaceful, and self-reliant societies with effective, legitimate governments; building human capital and creating social safety nets that reach the poorest and most vulnerable. Web site: http://www.usaid.gov/

Ushahidi: A Kenya-based organization which develops crowdsourcing methods for social activism and public accountability, creating activist mapping; its technology has been used in South Africa, Congo, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Mexico and India. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushahidi

People mentioned in this report:

James Long (US-CA) – a doctoral candidate at the University of California-San Diego, recruited Afghan volunteers to take photos of vote tallies at polling sites during the 2010 election, a low-cost method of detecting and reducing ballot tampering.


  1. see http://blackboxvoting.org/afghanistan/
  2. See http://blackboxvoting.org/kenya/
  3. Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2013. New York, US: Rowman & Littlefield (2013) ISBN 978-1-4422-0122-4



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