Former top aide to mayor challenged Anchorage election using policy quietly added that day by city IT director

May 20—The Anchorage ombudsman is investigating an incident in which a former chief of staff to Mayor Dave Bronson challenged the city's April 4 election, quoting an internal policy that didn't exist until the day she filed the appeal.

The Information Technology Department director added the policy to the department's cybersecurity page on the city's internal network on April 11 — just two hours before three election observers, including former Bronson chief of staff Sami Graham, appealed. The policy would require the IT department to authorize use of USB drives on city equipment, which would include the election center.

Security camera footage at the election center shows Bronson's IT director, Marc Dahl, meeting with one of the observers, John Henry, and leaving the building together the next day.

The city's ombudsman is now looking into the matter after receiving a complaint from a person who heard Graham speak at the Public Session of Canvass, when the Anchorage Election Commission finalized results.

"They were troubled by the alleged timeline. They expressed, 'How did this member of the public who filed a complaint know about a policy that had only been posted two hours earlier that was not publicly accessible?' That's the question they asked me," Ombudsman Darrel Hess said.

When Graham filed her initial complaint, and later when the observers appealed, it was increasingly apparent the election was not going Bronson's way. A group of conservative candidates had aimed to shift the balance of power in the city, but as results came in, all except one were behind in races for seven Anchorage Assembly seats. That left a moderate-to-progressive Assembly majority in place, which would continue to hold a check on the mayor's power.

The city Election Commission dismissed Graham's appeal. Election results were later certified by the Assembly.

'Out of thin air'

They have no access to the "muni-verse" intranet and the city's internal policies — none of them currently work for the city. Graham resigned as chief of staff in 2021. They quoted the policy verbatim in their written appeal to the Election Commission.

It's also not clear why Dahl added the policy on April 11, several days after the election count had begun, or why he met Henry at the election center on April 12.

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City staff, including the municipal clerk and other department leaders, were unaware of the policy's addition — including the department charged with coordinating development of citywide policies, the Office of Management and Budget.

"OMB had no previous knowledge nor assisted in the drafting of the ITD policy statement," the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

Dahl, in a brief emailed statement, said that he decided to add the policy to the department's intranet page.

Dahl did not answer multiple questions, including about how the observers obtained the policy language or about his relationship with Henry and the other observers.

Graham didn't respond to a phone call and questions sent by email. Henry answered a call but hung up immediately after a Daily News reporter introduced themselves. He also did not respond to questions sent by email. Smith did not return a follow-up phone call after initially answering his phone but declining an interview at the time and saying he would call back later.

"I'm concerned that policies would appear, I mean, out of thin air, honestly — without any notification to staff about the policy's creation," Election Clerk Jamie Heinz said in an interview.

And "it's perplexing" that the observers knew about it just after IT published the policy, she said.

'Not enforceable'

The IT statement Dahl added says that personnel must get authorization from his department before inserting a USB drive into "any piece of (city)-owned equipment" and that the devices must first be scanned for malware by IT. All insertions into "MOA critical infrastructure technology must also be approved and/or observed by IT (department) management" and follow other IT processes and procedures, it says.

Election staff use encrypted thumb drives, which they obtained from IT several years ago, to transfer information like tabulation results and the voter database from Dominion election equipment to city computers. The voter database tracks whose ballot envelopes have been received and scanned.

As a security measure, election equipment is "air gapped," meaning it is not connected to the internet, so it's necessary for election workers to use thumb drives, Heinz said.

The thumb drives are stored in a wall safe in a locked room that requires a code and thumbprint to open, according to Heinz. The drives are wiped and encrypted each year in accordance with city IT practices — IT staff have trained election staff — and the thumb drives require a passcode in order to download election results, Heinz said.

In their April 11 election appeal, observers Graham, Henry and Dan Smith claimed that election staff violated city policy because IT staff weren't supervising or ensuring the thumb drives were blank when election staff used USB drives to retrieve data from the Dominion equipment — just as the policy Dahl uploaded on April 11 laid out.

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"It is completely possible that the USB device is depositing or altering data, intentionally or unintentionally, not simply retrieving data, thereby nullifying the results of the election," they wrote.

Dahl, in his emailed statement to the Daily News, said the city had a "longstanding practice of prohibiting the use of thumb drives without being scanned by IT first."

"In this situation, I recognized an immediate need to update the website with a procedure that was already long standing practice," Dahl said.

According to multiple city officials, that's not the case. Many departments use thumb drives regularly without first getting IT approval, Heinz, Hess and others said.

Also, the IT department's policy statement is not a valid policy, the municipal clerk, ombudsman and other top city staff members say.

"That's one of my major concerns. I don't want somebody to end up being disciplined for not following a policy that really isn't a policy that they weren't told about," Hess said.

Its language, in practice, would apply across all city departments and agencies. But the IT department didn't go through the strict process required for drafting and implementing citywide rules.

"The policy was not coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget. It was not circulated to all departments for input. It does not include an effective date and it is not signed by the mayor," Heinz said to commission members during the Public Session of Canvass.

"My opinion is, it's not enforceable," Hess said of the policy.

Graham, during the Public Session of Canvass, presented it as if it were a legitimate policy, and with the message that she believed the issue was enough to overturn the election, said Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who was a candidate in the race and won reelection in North Anchorage.

"It feels really clear to me that this was, at the least, a bad-faith complaint," Constant said, also noting that the ombudsman is still investigating and key facts are currently unknown. "It just points to some very grave questions," he said.

"And what is the IT director doing writing fake policies?" he said.

In response to follow-up questions about why the Office of Management and Budget hadn't heard of the policy, Dahl in an email said there is a draft of a policy in process, which has "been ongoing for about a year" and that "the adoption process didn't make it to OMB yet."

Dahl and the mayor's office have not provided documentation after two requests from the Daily News.

The mayor's office did not respond to an interview request or questions about the observers' use of the policy.

'Certainly shocks my conscience'

Bronson has made efforts to reshape how municipal elections are conducted, such as his call in 2021 for the municipal clerk's position to become an elected office.

After the 2022 city election, which saw several members of the Assembly's majority reelected, Bronson launched an inquiry, citing complaints from election observers — including Graham.

The mayor called for a third-party, out-of-state audit of the city's election technology. That largely hinged on a visit from a maintenance contractor for the election equipment, who connected a USB drive to fix a technical issue on the final day of tabulation. Graham and Henry each had filed a complaint with the election clerk about the visit, along with other observers.

In her argument to the commission on April 20, Graham made pointed remarks that questioned the election results, including a claim about a statistical "red flag" in one race, though she provided no data or evidence. She also said that IT should supervise in order to act as a check on the Election Division and the municipal clerk, who is hired by the Assembly, while the Assembly had candidates in the election.

Heinz, the election clerk, responded to the commission that "the supposed policy did not follow proper procedure relating to implementation and was uploaded after the fact. The Assembly and code are clear that election officials who are required to take an oath of office and be neutral and impartial are the only people authorized to access the election technology."

"And the IT director is a political appointee who has not taken an oath of office, and allowing him or anyone in that department introduces unnecessary and unacceptable risk to the elections," she said.

According to city code, updated by Assembly legislation earlier this year, the election clerk is the overall administrator of city elections, including related information systems, standards and procedures.

When the commission dismissed the appeal, it asked the elections staff to work with observers to find a way to alleviate concerns.

Ralph Duerre, a former assistant municipal attorney who retired in 2021, was working for the election center as an observer liaison at the time Graham and others were making and appealing their complaint. (Liaisons interface with observers, taking complaints and answering questions while election staff are busy processing ballots.)

Duerre said he treated the appeal like any other complaint, first discussing it with Graham.

He hadn't heard of the policy and noticed it had been added "smack dab in the middle of an election," he said.

It's possible the IT director acted without understanding or knowledge of the requirements for policy making, Duerre said. Otherwise, "then, obviously, he's deliberately trying to accommodate the observers and to frustrate the work of the Election Division."

"I think unethical — yes. It certainly shocks my conscience," he said.