Election Changes Already Make 2018 Anchorage Mayoral Contest Unpredictable

Delays in implementing two important changes to election procedures will no longer affect Anchorage’s spring 2017 Assembly races, but instead will now compound and intensify their impacts in the larger race for mayor in the spring of 2018.

At the statewide level, voters earlier this month approved the PFD Automatic Voter Registration ballot initiative. The initiative will make it so anyone registering for a PFD, who is also legally eligible to vote, will be automatically registered. By initiative proponent’s estimates that could put 70,000 more Alaskans on the voter rolls.

Perhaps an equal or even larger impact of the initiative will be that many thousands of currently registered voters will have their information automatically updated to whatever their PFD application data shows. That change will ripple through political campaigns in a number of ways most of us won’t notice, but could greatly influence races.  

PFDVoter - Logo - SquareFirst of all, it means the Alaska Division of Election (DOE), political parties and candidates will have much more accurate data on who is where. That will result in far more accurate voter modeling of districts and improved targeting of voters for door-to-door campaigning and both persuasion and get-out-the-vote messaging. So expect a lot more and better-targeted mailers in your mailbox in coming elections.

Oh, and the waiting for those pesky questioned ballots to be counted in close races legislative races, that should largely evaporate. According to DOE officials, questioned ballots are mostly cast because someone is voting in the wrong legislative district. That is usually because they have moved but forgot to re-register to vote at their new address. When their ballot is counted by elections officials, it gets counted for statewide races since the voter is legally allowed to vote in that race regardless of which legislative district they are registered. In such cases, however, that person’s vote is tossed out in state house or senate races. 

To illustrate this point, in this year’s close race in House District 25 between Rep. Charisse Millett and Pat Higgins, 497 questioned ballots counted towards the presidential race totals, but only 102 of those same ballots counted in that state house race. After election night the difference between Millett and Higgins was only 45 votes. With about 500 questioned ballots still out there, it seemed Higgins still had plenty of hope for a comeback, only to see a fraction of those votes actually count in his race.

Under PFD Automatic Voter Registration, most of those voters will have their addresses automatically updated and thus will never need to cast a questioned ballot to begin with. That will add thousands of votes the legislative races around the state each cycle.

In Anchorage, a larger change to elections in underway.

According to the Anchorage Municipal Clerk’s website:

“On December 8, 2015, the Anchorage Assembly passed AR 2015-314(S) directing the Clerk’s Office to explore implementing a Vote by Mail election process beginning with the April 2017 Regular Election.”

In case that isn’t clear, the Anchorage Assembly, who run local elections, have decided to move Anchorage to a vote by mail system and do away with in-person voting starting with the spring 2017 municipal elections.

In so doing, the Assembly largely did away with election day, at least as we know it. There will no longer be a day when most people head down to cast their votes, rather there will be a three-week-long period when you are legally allowed to send in your ballot.

What will the impact of that change be and will it benefit the left or right? Those are good questions for which there doesn’t yet appear to be clear answers. Articles and academic papers we have reviewed are all over the place. You can read two for yourself here and here.

The only thing we can say is this change will have an impact. Some significant number of voters who didn’t vote before now will, and undoubtedly there will be some who voted in person who won’t submit their vote by mail. The dynamics of who those two groups are can shift the electorate and sway an election.

The good news, or at least it was good news, is that these changes were scheduled to be phased in rather than hit all at once.

The PFD Voter Automatic Voter Registration was never been planned for implementation until after Anchorage’s 2017 elections.

First of all, there are only five months between the initiative’s passing this November and Anchorage’s municipal election day in April. That is a small window to complete such a big data job. Compounding that tight timeline is the fact that the there is less than a week between the filing deadline for PFD applications (last day of March) and Anchorage’s election day (first Tuesday in April).  

Given all that, DOE is perfectly justified in conceding they won’t have fully updated voter files with PFD application data until at least summer of 2017.

It would seem then that the Anchorage vote by mail system will start for the spring 2017 Anchorage assembly races and the PFD Voter Automatic Registration will be in place for the 2018 Anchorage Mayoral election and then the statewide elections that fall.

What a nice staged transition that makes to implement two big election changes. Except it’s not going to happen.

At the October 14 Anchorage Assembly meeting, former Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler, who is now the contracted project manager for the vote by mail project, told the assembly members:

“When we started this project last spring, we had hoped to move it aggressively and bring vote by mail to Anchorage in April of 2017. Based on the schedule we are looking at now, and given the hurdles, we have had to deal with and overcome, the schedule will not make April of 2017. The more realistic and safe schedule is an April 2018 implementation.“

The Anchorage Assembly subsequently accepted Wheeler’s recommendation to move the date for vote by mail to the spring of 2018.

That is good news for this spring’s Anchorage Assembly candidates. They, their consultants, and political parties get to run campaigns under the same dynamics as they have known them for many years.

The unknowns, however, are now compounded for the 2018 Anchorage Mayoral election. It will be the first large election in Alaska where either new will system will be in place.

So that we don’t offend our friends around the state who will have local elections next October, we’ll stipulate that by “large election” we mean an election where both sides will have enough money, party support, etc, to potentially exploit these changes.

That likely won’t be the case in local races in boroughs and cities around Alaska, but the 2018 Anchorage Mayoral race will definitely be a big money affair. In 2015, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who is certainly running for re-election, raised just over $435,000 and his opponent, Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, raised $255,000.

That is plenty of campaign cash with which to hire people well-versed in campaign data and strategy, who can try to figure out all the angles on these changes. The problem is, those politicos won’t be devising that strategy based on hard data and field tested outcomes. Since that will be the first race run with either new factors at play.,they will have to rely on gut instinct as much as anything else.

For those of us watching the election, it should make for an entertaining race as we get to see each side try out their guesses about organization, strategy, and messaging.

Many of us have come to expect the standard Alaska election playbook by consultants such as Art Hackney and Marc Hellenthal. You can almost set your watch (for those still wearing watches) by when their mailers go out and attacks hit.

Now we get to watch how operatives and consultants rejigger their strategies. How will they deploy their media buys and how much resources will they put into direct mail?

Of course, the best thing to watch will be them wrestle with how exactly to launch that classic political tactic, the devastating attack. Remember, there is no election day anymore to plan your attack around. Now we have a three week or more ballot submission period. Do your attack too early and you risk people forgetting about it before they vote two or three weeks later. Just ask Billy Bush how fast voters tend to forget things these days. Then again, if you time your attack too late and weeks of ballots will have already been steam in uninfluenced by your smear.

 We aren’t bold enough to predict exactly how these changes will affect the outcome of the race for mayor and the races that come after, but we do know both being implemented for the first time in the same election will add uncertainty to the race. 

In the same election the universe of those registered to vote, those getting a ballot in their hand, and the method by which they are asked to cast their vote will all change. No matter how much your local political consultant might pretend to know how that plays out, they don’t. They can’t until a race of that size is run and we can see the data.

If you think waiting to see if Trump really would defy national polling to win the presidency was nerve-wracking, how about waiting for days or even weeks as ballots continue to arrive in the mail with no one having any way of knowing exactly which universe of voters will show up in those envelopes.   

voting-stickersIt is tempting to say these changes will favor Democrats since they are the ones who have been pushing them. In politics, however, the law of unintended consequences has sunk many a brilliant machiavellian political stratagem. It may do so here again, so we’ll reserve judgment until we see some election results.

P.S. — No one has even answered the most pressing problem with this whole situation. If have to vote by mail, how will you get your “I voted today” sticker?

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