By Cari Zawodny, on behalf of the LWV of Anchorage Board of Directors. Zawodny is the vice president of the League of Women Voters of Anchorage.
As our municipal leaders work to decide how to best handle the question of a special election to select an interim mayor, we ask all involved to remember the most important element of the election system: the voters.
As the League of Women Voters of Anchorage, part of our mission is registering voters and providing voters with election information through voter guides as well as candidate forums and debates. Given the brief amount of time available, the upcoming holiday season, the pandemic and the amount of time and effort it takes to conduct a municipal election, it is not in the best interest of voters to hold a special election to elect another interim mayor between now and the next municipal election in April 2021.
Our municipal charter addresses a mayoral vacancy and the emergency procedures for such a vacancy have been implemented. Clear timelines are outlined in the law. In addition, the charter also allows our city leaders to make some common sense decisions regarding timing, which is what we strongly urge at this time.
When it comes to elections, one of our priorities is making sure voters have information about the voting process as well as the candidates and issues on the ballot. Being an informed voter is a fundamental component to voting. With a January election, we fear this will be very difficult as voters will not have the information they need to participate.
According to the municipal charter, the soonest a special election can occur is 90 days from the vacancy so the special election day would be January 21, 2021. Working backward from that day, ballot packets in our city which uses the vote-by-mail method, must be mailed 21 days in advance which is New Year’s Day. New voters can register up to 30 days in advance of the election which would make the deadline December 23. People who have moved must also update their registration by that date. The trouble is, by then most people will be focused on family, handling pandemic holidays and certainly not thinking about an election at all.
Candidates who want to run for mayor in a special election must have time to educate the public about their platforms and the municipality needs time to disseminate nonpartisan information about them and the process. In regular elections this is done through tools such as the voter guide, put together by the Anchorage League of Women Voters for the municipality. The municipality also needs time and money in the budget to let people know information about ballot drop boxes, vote-in-person places, hours, when ballots are due and more. Websites need to be updated and information posted and mailed. All of this takes time and resources and will have to happen in the weeks between a statewide and federal election and the holidays. This is just not practical.
In Anchorage mayoral elections, a candidate must get just over 45% of the vote to win, and that rule applies to special elections too. This requires an entire separate runoff election. With a large field of candidates, this is likely to happen. This runoff election would happen during the same time the city will be preparing for the regular vote-by-mail election that begins in March.
Including the upcoming November state/federal election, plus a special mayoral election and most likely a runoff and then a regular city-wide election and possible mayoral runoff Anchorage voters could end up with five separate elections in less than six months. Low voter turnout in local races has long been identified as a key issue. Voters worn down by national politics and then five local elections will even more so reduce the turnout in a mayoral race. We must also not forget, Alaska is in the midst of a growing global pandemic. We ask our city leaders to consider these factors now, and make voters the priority in this situation by saying “no” to requiring a special election. Voter participation in an election is vital for our democratic form of government to be effective and a special election in this instance, misses the mark.