Local elections dominated the conversation at Tuesday’s meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, where members voted to create a voter turnout working group and approved several changes to the section of borough code that describes the election process.
Up for consideration Tuesday were three separate pieces of legislation, all of which addressed borough elections in some way.
First, assembly members passed legislation that newly outlines in code the process for people running for borough office as a write-in candidate and provides for better notice of meetings of the borough’s canvass board after an election.
The same ordinance also allows borough voters to correct mistakes on the ballot envelope and consolidates into one section of code the chronological order the canvass board will follow in the process of reviewing absentee, special needs and question ballots.
In bringing the legislation forward, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche said he was responding to problems that arose during the Feb. 14 special mayoral election, through which he was made mayor.
During that election, for example, the third-highest voter-getter was a write-in candidate. Uncertainty about how votes for a write-in candidate should be counted and reported, Micciche told assembly members in June, delayed when those election results were available.
The new language clarifies that a person can run as a write-in candidate if they miss the borough’s deadline to declare their candidacy. A person who wants to run as a write-in candidate would be required to complete a form declaring their candidacy at least five days before the election, but their name would not appear on any borough election materials.
When it comes to counting votes cast for write-in candidates, the number of votes received will only be reported for an individual if the total number of votes is “materially significant” to the race’s outcome.
The number of write-in votes is “materially significant” when a write-in candidate is the highest vote-getter, or when a write-in candidate is the second-highest vote-getter and a runoff election is required.
Assembly members on Tuesday amended the ordinance to say that election workers or borough employees who violate any part of the borough’s election rules may be subject to “disciplinary action.”
Additionally, borough code now also says that, in the event the assembly can’t meet the Tuesday after the election to accept the canvass report due to an emergency or weather, a special meeting shall be held “within 48 hours of it being safe or practical to meet.”
Micciche said during Tuesday’s assembly meeting that the amendments to the legislation stemmed from feedback that his office received from members of the community, borough staff and election workers.
“We had an original bill that was very limited in scope,” Micciche said. “We made some changes, we got some suggestions from the community. The scope of this ordinance is to clarify and streamline and make more efficient some of the processes that we experienced during the special election.”
Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox on Tuesday said that the ordinance, which passed unanimously, reflects how government is supposed to work, in the sense that it responds to a problem the borough faced recently, but had not encountered before.
“This is actually one of the perfect examples of how this process is supposed to work,” Cox said. “We have code that hadn’t been updated in a long time, partly because that had never happened here.”
During the same Tuesday meeting, assembly members also voted to create a borough working group tasked with boosting local voter turnout.
The vote in support of creating that working group came immediately after assembly members voted 7-2 against a proposal brought by assembly member Richard Derkevorkian that would have asked voters whether or not they support bumping the day borough residents vote in local elections — usually in October — to match the state and federal election day in November.
In bringing the proposal forward, Derkevorkian said his goal was to boost voter turnout at local elections by making it more convenient for borough voters to cast ballots in local races at the same time that they are casting ballots in races that traditionally see higher turnout, such as for state and federal office.
Across all precincts, roughly 18.2% of borough voters cast ballots in the most recent regular borough election, which was held on Oct. 4, 2022. Turnout at individual precincts ranged from 2.1% in Tyonek to 29.6% in Cooper Landing. That’s compared to turnout during the Nov. 8 general election, where turnout at the same precincts was 6.4% and 35.5%, respectively.
The cities of Soldotna, Seward and Homer all voiced formal opposition to the alignment of state and local election days after the ordinance was introduced in July. All three expressed concern about the costs of such a move and how it would impact a memorandum of understanding five cities have with the borough outlining how they will work together to administer elections.
Homer Mayor Ken Castner told assembly members Tuesday that, while the resolution would only get an advisory vote from borough residents, widespread support among voters for such a move may compel the assembly to make such a change. The proposed language, he said, reads like a ballot initiative rather than an advisory vote, which may cause confusion among voters.
“I think it would be really hard, if it passed, for the assembly to do anything other than to ratify what would seem to be a mandate from the voters,” Castner said. “The state law allows you to change this by ordinance and if you want to go through the ordinance process, you’re going to get the same thing from my city anyway, whether it’s an ordinance, or an advisory vote or an initiative.”
Derkevorkian pushed back against concerns about logistical challenges the peninsula could face if the election date was moved and said a previous working group created by the borough to boost turnout resulted in a hybrid vote-by-mail system that voters ultimately overturned. He further suggested that assembly members who oppose the advisory vote would be silencing their constituents.
“Why wouldn’t anyone support a question simply asking their constituents if they want to move the election,” he said. “Any assembly member voting to silence their constituents’ voices in this decision shouldn’t be representing them.”
Assembly members ultimately voted 7-2 against asking voters whether or not to align the election days, with Derkevorkian and assembly member Bill Elam voting in support.
In proposing the creation of a working group that will be tasked with brainstorming actionable ways to boost voter turnout, co-sponsors Cox and Brent Hibbert said they wanted to be proactive about boosting turnout without having to move the borough’s election day.
Per the resolution passed Tuesday, the group will consist of 14 people including city clerks, members of the borough’s canvass board, a community member qualified to represent the interests of disabled voters and a member of the League of Women Voters, among others.
The group will meet at least three times before the assembly’s first meeting in March 2024 and ultimately provide a list of “prioritized, actionable recommendations” on ways to boost turnout.
Tuesday’s assembly meeting can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.com.