Staff for the Alaska Public Offices Commission have recommended a $16,450 fine against Preserve Democracy, a group led by former U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.
In a report released Friday, staff for the state’s campaign finance regulator concluded that Preserve Democracy failed to register with the commission before campaigning in favor of a proposed ballot measure that would repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting system.
The new report is only a recommendation: Any fines must be approved by the commission, which meets next month.
The report was issued in response to a complaint filed in July by Alaskans for Better Elections, a group that backs ranked choice voting here.
Staff dismissed allegations that Preserve Democracy improperly participated in Anchorage’s municipal election and that Tshibaka acted as an unregistered lobbyist, but attorney Scott Kendall, who filed the complaint on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, said of the result, “on the whole, we’re very pleased … The staff definitely did some hard work.”
While the recommended fine is relatively small in the context of a statewide political campaign, Kendall said that if the complaint is upheld, it will force Preserve Democracy to disclose its donors and register with the state.
“The main nexus of the case for my client was the unregistered campaigning in favor of a ballot measure, and that’s the big piece,” Kendall said. “And that’s where APOC clearly agrees.”
According to the report, timing was the key factor: Preserve Democracy set up a website opposing ranked choice voting just as repeal proponents launched their ballot measure.
Tshibaka spoke at events in February 2023, said her group was coordinating with a separate group supporting the repeal, and urged people to sign the petition for repeal.
Though Preserve Democracy’s website doesn’t specifically mention the repeal petition, “under all the circumstances, it was susceptible of no other reasonable interpretation but as an exhortation to support the (repeal) petition,” staff wrote.
That matters because campaign activity is regulated, and general speech on a particular topic is not.
Staff concluded that Preserve Democracy needed to register as a campaign entity, report its spending, and insert campaign-specific disclosures on its website.
Matt Singer, an attorney representing Preserve Democracy and Tshibaka, said his clients “strongly disagree with the staff’s conclusion that the website is an independent (campaign) expenditure.”
“It’s essentially taking free speech, political speech, the fact that Ms. Tshibaka expressed an opinion about the initiative, and because she expressed an opinion about the initiative, that converts a website that doesn’t talk about the initiative into advocacy,” Singer said.
“It’s just not consistent with past advice and decisions. So we look forward to taking it to hearing and to court, and to the Supreme Court if we need to,” he said.
A separate complaint, filed against the group directly backing the repeal petition, has yet to be analyzed by commission staff. A report on that complaint is expected before the end of the month.
• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.