Despite growing concerns about COVID-19 and a lack of poll workers that the state says could lead to the closing of some polling locations, the state Department of Elections is continuing to push ahead with in-person voting for this fall’s elections despite legislative authority hold them via the mail.
Last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who was chastised by the courts twice last week for injecting politics in to the electoral process, acknowledged the risk of infection for Alaska’s seniors and announced the state would be sending out paper applications for by-mail absentee ballots for the August primary election to anyone 65 or older.
(National polling also happens to show seniors are more likely to vote conservatively, but the lieutenant governor’s office claims that wasn’t a factor in the decision.)
Now state legislators who’ve supported election reform in Alaska are calling for those applications to be sent out to everyone, saying the health risks of COVID-19 aren’t unique to seniors. After reopening, Alaska is seeing its greatest surge in new cases since the pandemic began.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will not be gone by the August primary elections, nor will the virus decide to take a holiday for the occasion. If we can help it, we should avoid bringing together large groups of people,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins in a prepared statement Monday afternoon. “I urge DOE to distribute absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in Alaska to reduce the risk to public health.”
Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, sponsored legislation this session that would have allowed people to permanently sign up to receive absentee ballots. Currently, in most circumstances, voters must request an absentee ballot for every election.
“Why not just send an absentee application out to everyone?” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “There’s other people who are vulnerable and shouldn’t be going to the polls — people with underlying health conditions.”
It’s not just people with underlying health problems that are particularly hard-hit by the virus.
Research from the current pandemic has shown that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. Black people are more than 3.5 times likely to die than white people, according to a study by researchers at Yale and the University of Pittsburgh, and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die of the virus than white people.
Why it matters
The COVID-19 pandemic combined with years of Republican efforts to suppress the voting rights of minority communities has made for some truly egregious scenes in other states where voters have been met with extremely long lines and confusion on election day. These scenes have cast concerns for the fall elections, particularly as conservatives have frequently rejected calls to implement by-mail voting for the fall elections.
Several communities in Alaska are moving toward permanent by-mail elections. Anchorage, which switched to vote by mail in 2018, was able to successfully conduct its election earlier this year during the middle of the lockdown, though it also ran into problems with staffing its vote processing center. It’s now assisting other communities and has offered to help the state.
The policies adopted by Lt. Gov. Meyer and the Department of Elections, such as a program where nonprofit groups can adopt a polling station, will likely extend that disparity to Alaska. Not all districts have a nonprofit group ready and able to staff the 14 to 16 hours needed on election day. So far just seven precincts have been adopted by groups.
Register for a by-mail absentee ballot
Anyone can request a by-mail absentee ballot for any reason in Alaska.
The state’s request form requires voters to fill out the application, print it out, physically sign it and send it in via mail, fax or email via a scanned attachment. Applications must be received by the Division of Elections 10 days before election day. The state does not offer drop-off collection boxes similar to Anchorage so by-mail ballots must be postmarked by the voter and mailed in.