Senate approves sweeping COVID-19 emergency bill, including option for a by-mail primary

The Alaska Capitol Building. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

The Senate unanimously passed legislation today to extend Alaska’s COVID-19 emergency to Sept. 1, temporarily granting state officials expanded powers, easing professional licensing and making it possible to shift the state’s primary election to by-mail ballots.

Senate Bill 241 is required because state law limits the length of disaster declaration made by the governor. It’s a fast-moving bill with several provisions aimed at stepping up the state’s response to COVID-19.

“The whole world has been turned upside down,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole. “We’re saying, ‘How do we respond to it?'”

The Senate chose a more conservative approach than the legislation introduced by Gov. Mike Dunleavy that sought to extend the disaster declaration through March 2021. Coghill noted that the Legislature may be back later this year to consider further extending the declaration or expanding its powers.

The legislation includes new powers for the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, to issue standing orders for public health agents and health care providers while responding to COVID-19. It also eases professional licensing requirements for people and companies working in the health industry and greatly expands the options for delivering health care digitally.

The legislation requires the governor submit monthly reports to the Legislature about his spending, which is also outlined and expanded in the bill.

Senators made several amendments on the floor, including giving the state’s chief medical officer expanded powers to establish cleaning standards for high-traffic stores like grocery stores and allowing for people to prepare their estate through digital means.

Democrats also sought to introduce several measures aimed at barring foreclosures, evictions and repossessions during the coronavirus outbreak but ultimately withdrew the measures when they were given assurances they would have the chance to bring these up during a still-pending economic relief bill that’s in the works by the Senate Finance Committee.

Much of the discussion, however, focused on the by-mail election measures.

The legislation says, simply, that the lieutenant governor “may, after consultation with the commissioner of health and social services, direct that a primary or statewide special election to be held … in the same manner as an election by mail.” It also grants the director of the Division of Elections to adopt emergency regulations to undertake a by-mail election.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Begich, raised several concerns with the measure, warning that it didn’t do enough to address the concerns with making such a fast switch to vote-by-mail. They offered several amendments that ranged from asking the Division of Elections to employ secure drop-off boxes, hire a younger workforce and establish measures that allow social distancing while reviewing questioned ballots.

Every election measure was rejected as Republicans balked at the costs and worried that they might introduce fraud, similar concerns Republicans have long voiced with by-mail voting.

The most contentious amendment by Begich would have waived the requirement that by-mail ballots be verified by a second person. He said with hunker-down orders and social-distancing, it’s an unrealistic requirement that put Alaskans ability to vote at risk.

“If you are isolated you may not have that option,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said it’s asking people to break the law or ignore dire public health warnings.

“I’m just wondering what the average Alaskan sitting at home is thinking when we have laws all across the state saying stay in your house, don’t interact with other people. How are they supposed to get a witness to certify it when we’re mandating don’t interact with other people,” he said. “Somebody explain to me how that certification is supposed to happen. Which law are they supposed to break in order to exercise their right to vote?”

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said she opposed the measure because it could open the door to fraud. As for the need to have a second person to witness it, Hughes said she doubted anyone was really in a position where they had no one to serve as a witness.

“I don’t believe there’s a soul in Alaska that doesn’t have contact with one other person in the state,” she said. “I believe this amendment opens the door, even just a small crack, to fraud.”

The amendment was also voted down.

Democrats all ultimately voted for the final bill, but Begich warned that it was “fundamentally flawed” because of the Senate’s actions on the election measures. He said he hoped that the House, which will still need to take up and act on the bill, solves the problems he outlined.

Side note: With the Legislature likely to wrap up work before the end of the regular 90-day session, it’s possible several voter initiatives will appear on the primary ballot. The Legislature, which has the power to bump initiatives by passing a similar law, can decide which ballot the measures appear on by when the Legislature adjourns. This year, if they adjourn on or before the end of the 90-day session, it would send the ballots to the primary ballot. However, the Legislature could stay in session and adjourn after the end of the 90-day session and bump the initiatives to the general election ballot.

Other news

  • The Senate has passed Rep. Zack Fields’ House Bill 96 to reverse and limit the Dunleavy administration’s steep rate increases on the Alaska Pioneer Homes.
  • The House also passed a bill, HB 182, requiring rape kits to be tested within six months.
  • The Legislature has appointed the conference committee on the operating budget, sending the Legislature into end-of-session mode where meetings can be held with as little as a day’s notice. The Legislature has been already waiving public notices in several cases as it races toward adjournment.
  • Donny Olson explained his absence from the Senate floor on Monday as a case of stomach flu and nothing more worrisome.

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