The state tried to fix Alaska’s flawed automatic voter registration system, but the Legislature took a pass

Alaska’s automatic voter registration system was created by voter initiative in the 2016 election, creating a system to automatically register or update the registration of Alaskans who file for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, and it hasn’t been updated since.

Now, with the primary election a week away some voters are finding out that the address listed on their voter ID cards isn’t accurate.

The problem is chalked up to the way the automatic voter registration works. The Division of Elections receives the information used to file for the PFD and then sends out postcards to voters alerting them about the changes. Voters have 30 days to send the card back with any corrections or to opt out.

It’s those postcards–of which more than 217,000 have been sent out since the program was created–that seems to be the major flaw in the system.

The problem is that typos, missed or overlooked mail mean that people are getting their addresses updated incorrectly. The fact alone that people have to wait between filing for the PFD and receiving the postcard in the mail creates plenty of room for error.

Here’s the response from the state:

“The law is currently in its first full year of implementation, and this is something new and we’re implementing the law as it’s written,” Division of Elections Spokeswoman Samantha Miller told KTUU.

The problems, however, aren’t entirely a surprise. The Division of Elections raised the issues earlier this year and Gov. Bill Walker filed legislation in the House and Senate that would have fixed the issue, but the Legislature ultimately failed to act on it.

The big change proposed by Walker and the Division of Elections would have allowed people to opt out of the voter registration right on the PFD, making it more like the voter registration at the DMV and eliminating the need to send out postcards.

About 76,000 people were affected by automatic voter registration in 2017. This year, the Division of Elections sent out a total of 141,144 postcards to either new voters or voters with updated addresses. Removing the postcards and streamlining the process would have saved the state an estimated $200,000.

Seems like a sensible update. So what did the Legislature do instead?

Instead, the legislation never made it to the floor of either chamber.

The Senate spent a fair amount of attention on the bill, but its changes were largely focused on taking the teeth out of the program than fixing it.

North Pole Sen. John Coghill successfully amended the bill in committee so, if signed into law, it would have changed the entire voter registration program from an opt-out program to an opt-in program, which state attorneys argued would effectively have repealed the 2016 voter initiative (that’s a move that would have likely landed the Legislature on shaky constitutional ground once again because the Alaska Constitution bars the Legislature from repealing voter initiatives for two years after passage).

Coghill, a Republican, argued at the time that the duty to register to vote should remain with the voter, not the state’s automatic system.

[RELATED: Senate committee takes the ‘automatic’ out of Alaska’s voter-created automatic voter registration system]

The House State Affairs Committee held just one hearing on the bill.

Even though the bill, if passed this year, wouldn’t have gone into effect until after the filing window for the PFD, it would have covered the 2019 PFD filing period. With at least another year until some kind of fix is passed, Alaska voters will have to spend another year keeping an eye out for postcards.

What to do

Meanwhile, the Division of Elections is working to help voters who were affected by the changes and has posted an updated guide about the process. It gives guidelines on how to update your address, but notes that it’s too late to update addresses for the primary election.

As for the primary next week, here’s what the state has to say:

The Division is instructing voters who did not intend their registration to be updated for the 2018 Primary Election to vote a questioned ballot at their polling place based on their residence address, and their ballot will be reviewed by a Regional Review Board following Primary Election Day.

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