Paper ballots are here to stay as election officials plan upgrade and expansion of Alaska’s voting system

(Photo by the Alaska Division of Elections)

The state of Alaska is in the early steps of updating the infrastructure of its voting system–ranging from everything from voting hardware to the software used to tabulate votes and design ballots–as well as update and expand options for voting, but there are no plans to eliminate paper ballots from the system.

State election officials gave a status update on those efforts during a meeting of Election Policy Work Group. In addition to an overview of how the state is considering spending some $4.8 million ($3 million of which comes from the feds) that’s budgeted for election system upgrades, the group also reviewed recent work to gauge rural Alaska interest in vote-by-mail elections.

But with Russian election interference and hacking on the mind, almost everything was rooted in election security. Alaska Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke said regardless of the changes that are being considered–none of which are expected to impact this year’s election–that paper ballots will remain a bedrock to the state’s system.

“I think the biggest highlight for us as a state is we use a paper ballot system and there’s no desire to move away from that system,” she said. “It just makes out audit-ability that much stronger … whether we’re using a 20-year-old system or a new system.”

The efforts to upgrade or expand Alaska’s voting system rest in two broad categories: efforts to upgrade the state’s infrastructure and efforts to expand voting options through law.

The state’s getting assistance on both fronts from Resource Data, which is helping the election officials purchase upgrades to its election system and craft legislation that could expand voting opportunities. The contractor with the company told the work group that the crafting of legislation is in the early stages and there’s no draft yet, but said the work is expected to be completed by the end of the year for consideration by the Legislature in 2019.

There’s a big interest in creating vote-by-mail system, particularly after the high turnout in Anchorage’s first-ever vote-by-mail election earlier this year, but it seems that at least for now the state won’t be pushing for a full statewide switch. Alaska voters can already cast their votes by mail by requesting an absentee ballot (the deadline to request one for the Aug. 21 primary is Aug. 11).

A big problem is the split between Alaska’s rural and urban population centers. Those divides were illustrated by two research reports–based a survey and a focus group–that registered concern among rural Alaska voters about the wholesale elimination of in-person voting. Both reports generally found that people in rural Alaska had deep concerns about a system that only allowed a vote-by-mail voting, especially by people concerned about the quality and safety of rural mail delivery or those who were worried about language barriers.

The research did, however, show some support from rural Alaska for a hybrid system that would allow vote-by-mail, but would also have voting centers or secure drop offs for ballots.

To that end, the work on updating the state’s election laws is heading more toward a hybrid system where rural Alaska may largely maintain its in-person voting  as a default with an option to opt into by-mail voting while urban Alaska could more swiftly be transferred to a broader vote-by-mail system with an option for in-person voting.

Another idea floated was that instead of setting up a universal vote-by-mail system, the state could implement permanent absentee voting. The state’s absentee ballots already function like a vote-by-mail system, but it requires people to request the ballots for every election. The permanent absentee voting, as described at the meeting, would allow people to receive the by-mail ballots without having to request them at each election.

Bahnke told the committee that that’s how many other states have eased into vote-by-mail elections.

Report on rural Alaska attitudes towards by-mail voting

The Work Group heard from researchers from the University of Alaska’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and the Alaska Municipal League gauged interest and concern voters in rural Alaska had when it comes to casting their ballots through the mail.

The survey was conducted with 412 registered voters in Southwest Alaska from the Bethel, Dillingham and Kusilvak census areas.

Broadly speaking, both surveys found pretty significant concern with vote-by-mail elections that was exacerbated when taking a person’s attitude on the reliability on the mail system into account. A person who was dissatisfied with the mail system wanted to keep the status quo of in-person voting at a rate of 69 percent. People who were satisfied or neutral wanted only wanted to keep in-person voting at a rate of 44 percent or 48 percent.

(Graphic by ISER)

The full report has plenty of interesting insight into the logistical challenges of expanding by-mail voting to the entirety of Alaska. Here it is:

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