Sitka’s election official, Sara Peterson, explains the procedures used to test the logic and accuracy of Sitka’s two Dominion voting machines. City staff Jess Earnshaw and Holley Dennison assist. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Sitka’s voting machines were put through their paces recently (Thursday, 9-8-22). The testing is a routine part of preparing for election day that usually occurs behind the scenes in the municipal clerk’s office, but this year took place in public.

“So when it goes through and it shows an overvote, because we’re testing we’ll just cast it through,” says municipal clerk Sara Peterson, speaking over a beeping alarm on a voting machine.

Sitka has two voting precincts, each equipped with a Dominion voting machine. Peterson is Sitka’s election official. She’s huddled over one of the machines with deputy clerk Jess Earnshaw and administrative coordinator Holley Dennison. They’re making sure the voting machines record all the properly marked ballots, and alert officials if there’s a problem.

In this case, it’s an “overvote.” The machine gives the voter the option of reviewing their work, or starting again with a fresh ballot.

Peterson – So they would look at it and then the voter would decide if they want another, if they’ve made maybe a mistake. 

KCAW – An overvote means if it says choose only one, and you voted for two?

Peterson – Like this one, for example: This test ballot you’re voting for no more than one. So this person’s voted for two, right? So that race, if we do cast it, that race won’t count for that individual or for this ballot.

Peterson and her team test the machines with both regular ballots and absentee ballots. Although they’ll stock the voting booths in Sitka with their preferred pen, a type which doesn’t bleed through a double-sided ballot, they test other pens and pencils on the ballots. They’ll make sure all the candidates are listed, all the ballot questions, and that everything is set to zero. Oddly enough, despite the high-powered software in play, the results are printed out on paper, like the cash register receipt at the grocery store, and signed by all the officials in the room.

This is the routine legwork of election officials in clerk’s offices, high school gyms, and city libraries across the country, but it’s the first time in Sitka that it’s been conducted in front of an audience.

No one’s suggested that Sitka’s elections haven’t been accurate. Peterson, though, is staying out in front of any complaints.

“There is added scrutiny,” Peterson said. “And even at the local level, if I can ease concerns. You know logic and accuracy testing has been done for years and years and years. And I’ve been in the clerk’s office for 15 years. And every year we tested in the clerk’s office, two of us, but I felt if I could ease some concerns even at the local level, I would do it in public.”

There are three of us today in the audience at Harrigan Centennial Hall for the testing, and it is interesting. This is the first time I’ve noticed the “Dominion” brand on the side of the machines. The company has filed two lawsuits against Fox News and its parent company for defamation following the 2020 election, when former President Trump claimed the election had been stolen. Fox News propagated that claim, despite its being tested and failed in 61 separate court cases between the November election and President Biden’s inauguration in January. After Dominion filed its $1.6 billion suit, however, Fox News backpedaled quickly – although many expect the case will go to trial, and that Fox will argue that it was merely reporting the assertions of the President, rather than supporting false claims that would have a devastating impact on Dominion.

But that seems far away from this meeting room in Sitka, where three election officials are spending the afternoon making sure local voters have their say this coming October 4.