Over the objections of state attorneys that doing so would effectively repeal a 2016 voter initiative, the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday approved an amendment that would change the state’s automatic voter registration tied to the PFD to an opt-in system.
The amendment was offered by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, that would require people filing for their PFDs to opt into registering to vote.
“I just wanted to make the case that the burden of the willingness to vote still belongs to the voter. There shouldn’t be a presumption on the government that they are registered to vote,” he said. “There should be a presumption that the individual chooses to vote.”
The automatic voter registration initiative was passed on a wide margin in the 2016 elections with nearly 65 percent of voters supporting the measure. It allows people signing up for their dividends to automatically register to vote or update their registration (something that has increased importance with Anchorage’s vote-by-mail elections). The initiative allows people to opt out of registration.
Initiatives are constitutionally protected against repeal by the Legislature for two years after passage, but can be amended in minor ways.
Department of Law attorney Libby Bakalar warned the committee against approving the amendment, citing a legal memo that said, “There exists a possibility that requiring an applicant to opt-in could be interpreted by a court as so significant a change to the initiated law, that it functions as a repeal.”
Bakalar said she agreed.
“In my view that outcome is more likely than not because the core intent behind the initiative was to create an automatic voter registration process,” she said. “The opt-out provisions are at the heart of that process. I think the Supreme Court would more likely than not reach the conclusion that this type of amendment prior to March of 2019 would constitute an unconstitutional repeal of the bill.”
Coghill said it was a matter of opinion, adding that he believed the voter initiative was just about making it easier to register not about automatic voter registration.
“I don’t see it going to the heart of it because the heart of it was making it easier for people to register,” he said. “That’s just my argument. We just fundamentally disagree on this.”
Committee chair Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he would support the change, but agreed that it would amount to a repeal of the initiative and ultimately voted against the amendment. He was the lone vote against adopting the amendment.
Sens. Coghill, Cathy Giessel and David Wilson, all Republicans, voted in favor of the amendment, as did Juneau Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan.
Senate Bill 186 and a companion bill in the House were introduced as minimal updates to the initiative. It would have included an opt-out provision as part of the PFD application, eliminating the need to send out paper opt-out notices separately. The governor’s letter accompanying the bill said it would save the state an estimated $200,000 a year to make the change.
Why it matters
According to the Department of Elections, the automatic voter registration system updated the information of about 76,000 Alaskans during the one month where the system and the PFD application period overlapped in 2017. Those 76,000 applicants received notices in the mail that they were either being registered or had their registration updated. Some 27,300 records had to be manually processed because of existing hitches in state law. Senate Bill 186 sought to smooth over those initial problems with the law.
Coghill’s amendment would undermine the automatic-ness of the automatic voter registration system, potentially leaving more people without voter registration or up-to-date registration. However it’s unclear just how much of an impact this would have as the Division of Elections above report doesn’t indicate how many people who received voter opt-out notifications chose to do so.