It’s time for Alaska to make the switch to by-mail voting

The Alaska Democratic Party's mail-in ballot for the 2020 presidential primary.

When Americans went to the polls last Tuesday to vote in the presidential primary races some were met with polls closed not by emergency order (as was done in Ohio) but by absent poll workers, who stayed home out of fear of COVID-19.

The scene should be immensely troubling for everyone interested in free, fair and safe elections.

As Alaska and the rest of the country begin the painful process of bringing the economy to a near-halt as we hunker down—for what could be months—it won’t be surprising if these scenes extend into the fall primary, local and general elections.

Alaska is not only facing the immediate economic troubles of the virus, but the long-term risks to the state and its finances. Alaskans need to be involved in shaping the response. There will be big decisions on the ballots: Oil taxes, election reform, dozens of high-stakes legislative races with implications for the budget and revenue and, possibly, the recall of the governor and the future of the PFD.

Ensuring Alaskans have access to free, fair and safe elections will require the state and municipalities to provide everyone the ability to vote without the fear of spreading or contracting COVID-19.

It’s time for Alaska to make the switch to by-mail voting.

COVID-19 poses a risk to in-person voting but it has done nothing to slow the two by-mail elections that are currently underway in Alaska. Tens of thousands of Alaskans will still get to cast their votes while social distancing thanks to the move to by-mail voting by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Alaska Democratic Party for its presidential elections.

Note: The Alaska Democratic Party, appreciating the risk, has this morning canceled its plans for any in-person voting and extended the deadline to voters to return their ballots.

The decision to make the move will rest with the Alaska Legislature.

Much of the work has already been done.

In the Legislature, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins has proposed a full-fledged vote-by-mail bill and the House has already passed Rep. Chris Tuck’s bill to allow people to permanently request by-mail absentee ballots (currently, most voters must request by-mail absentee ballots for every election) that would serve as an better-than-nothing solution.

The state’s election policy working group began to explore the possibility of by-mail voting under former Gov. Bill Walker, an effort that appears to have been abandoned with the election of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Research done by the group recognized the challenge in making the switch, finding that rural Alaskans concerned about the security and stability of the mail system were skeptical about an all-mail election. That reinforces the need for officials to make this change not just with urgency but with careful consideration.

At the time, the working group seemed to favor a hybrid system with by-mail ballots for everyone and an option for in-person voting for rural communities.

Other local communities have looked to implement or expand by-mail voting.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s election stakeholder group, which was tasked with making voting easier and more accessible, endorsed a similar hybrid solution in a report last year, calling for a hybrid system with broad use of by-mail voting and limited options for early in-person voting.

“The (vote-by-mail hybrid structure) has proven to be a more efficient and effective process for the administration of elections,” explained the report, noting that it’s already used in six of the borough’s 28 precincts. “In this process every registered voter will be mailed a ballot package 2-3 weeks prior to election day, giving more voters an opportunity to exercise their right to vote at a time and place that meets their schedule and convenience.”

It also notes that ADA-compliant voting centers would still be available in a handful of locations in the borough for in-person voting.

“The (vote-by-mail hybrid structure) allows for all voters to vote in the way that suits them best,” it explained.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has yet to act on the recommendations, but that work, along with the work of the state working group and the experiences of Anchorage can and should inform the decisions ahead.

I recognize that taking up and approving such a massive overhaul to Alaska’s election laws is, at best, a herculean task to accomplish by the time legislators plan on being out of Juneau, but they should set the groundwork now to be able to take up this critical issue remotely in the following weeks and months.

Our elected officials from the statewide to the local level are facing difficult decisions to slow the spread of coronavirus and some of those decisions—such as the order to hunker down—will put hardships on many of us, and in some cases, put fundamental rights on hold.

Don’t let the right to vote be one of them.

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