Voters will have the choice on Oct. 6 of whether to keep a borough ordinance that makes changes to the current election system, or whether to do away with it.
Proposition 2 asks whether voters want to repeal Ordinance 2020-24, which sets up a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted 6-3 to pass the ordinance creating the hybrid vote-by-mail system on June 3. Assembly member Kenn Carpenter then requested that the vote be reconsidered, but the assembly voted to keep its original ruling at the June 16 meeting.
Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce then vetoed the ordinance, but the assembly overrode his veto in a 6-3 vote.
Shortly thereafter, assembly members Norm Blakeley and Jesse Bjorkman submitted a referendum petition application to the borough. Referendums are procedures in which the people vote to either keep or reject a law that has already been passed.
According to the Proposition 2 description, referendum petitioners turned in 1,362 signatures, which was enough to place the question on the Oct. 6 election ballot.
The ordinance and subsequent referendum stem from an incident in 2015, in which a blind voter in Homer filed a formal complaint against the borough with the Alaska Human Rights Commission when he found his polling place was not able to accommodate him to vote privately in person. The polling place did not have the necessary machinery to serve blind voters.
The commission found in 2018 that the allegations in the complaint were supported by “substantial evidence.” The borough reached a conciliation agreement with the commission, which stipulated that the borough would have an ADA-compliant election process in place by the end of 2020.
From this process came the formation of an Election Stakeholders Group in 2019. That group addressed the human rights complaint and commission findings, and also looked into how to improve the borough’s election process. The stakeholders group issued six recommendations to the assembly.
Those recommendations are where the hybrid vote-by-mail system proposed in Ordinance 2020-24 came from. In September 2019, the borough assembly along with the cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Seldovia and Kachemak City recognized the stakeholder group findings and directed borough staff to explore implementing them, in a joint resolution passed by the assembly.
The ordinance passed by the assembly that created the hybrid vote-by-mail system does several things. It creates the hybrid system, which eliminates physical polling places in more rural outlying areas and sends ballots to every registered voter; it adds one week to a mayoral runoff election to give the clerk’s office more time to get ballot packages out, and it makes it so that only proposition ballot summaries approved by the assembly appear in the voter pamphlets.
A “yes” vote on Proposition 2 will repeal the ordinance that created the hybrid vote-by-mail system. If the proposition passes, the hybrid system will not take effect.
A “no” vote on Proposition 2 will keep the ordinance in place. The hybrid system would become effective on Jan. 1, 2021.
Bjorkman said he wanted to co-sponsor the referendum effort along with Blakeley because borough voters had rejected a similar election change measure in 2014, and he thought they deserved to have a vote again now.
“I thought it was important that voters weigh in on this issue as well,” he said.
Worries about mail-in-voting being more susceptible to voter fraud have become part of a larger national conversation on the ideal of mail-in-voting, but Bjorkman said it wasn’t one of his main reasons for backing the referendum. He said he’d be shocked if people in this borough actually went through the trouble of undertaking that kind of criminal activity.
“I’m not naive enough to think that it could not happen,” he added.
The larger concern for Bjorkman was that the ordinance creating the hybrid vote-by-mail system would eliminate several in-person polling places in more rural areas of the borough, concentrating them in the main city centers.
“Those folks living outside of those areas would not have the opportunity to go and vote in their precincts as they normally would,” Bjorkman said.
Assembly member Willy Dunne was a member of the Election Stakeholders Group. He said concerns of voter fraud that he’s heard have been vague and not specific. There are six remote areas of the borough where elections take place via vote-by-mail already. Dunne said the borough has been utilizing the vote-by-mail process for 20 years “and there’s been zero instances of voter fraud,” or even accusations of it.
“There’s been talk nationally about voter fraud, but it always seems unsubstantiated and the actual rate of voter fraud in absentee ballots is really minuscule,” Dunne said.
Dunne did say that his normal in-person polling place, the Kachemak Community Center in Kachemak City, would be one of the ones eliminated in the new hybrid system. The borough has 28 polling places, and the new system would reduce that to five. Dunne noted that the borough could possibly have a few more than that.
“But I think that’s a small price to pay for a more secure system, a more accessible system,” he said.
Dunne said the hybrid vote-by-mail system would be safer than the current absentee vote-by-mail system, because it would incorporate new security features such as signature verification software, and poll workers trained by forensic experts in signature identification.
Bjorkman, however, maintained that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to being rejected or disqualified due to errors by the sender or inconsistencies in the information held by the Division of Elections. If there is doubt about voter information in person, Bjorkman said the voter can always vote a question ballot if they are at a polling place.
Another issue Bjorkman sees with the new hybrid system is that it would send ballots to every registered voter in the borough without them having to request one, like a voter needs to do currently to get an absentee ballot in the mail. He said voters should have to request ballots “to keep the process clean and to make sure that ballots are going out to people who are actually residing in our borough and have the intent of voting in our elections.”
Dunne, on the other hand, said he’s heard from voters who want to be able to vote at home, and don’t want that process to be overly difficult. The don’t want to have to jump through a number of hoops to get their mail-in ballot, he said. If all voters received a ballot in the mail, they could then choose whether to mail it back or drop it off in one of several secure drop boxes. In his own example, the drop box in Dunne’s district would be at McNeil Canyon Elementary School.
Another factor in whether to keep the ordinance creating the hybrid vote-by-mail system or reject it is cost.
“There would be an upfront investment in some hardware and some machinery that would be necessary,” Dunne said of the system.
The borough also would need to buy equipment like high-speed scanners and the signature verification software, as well as a few ADA-accessible machines for voters with disabilities. Dunne noted that, if Proposition 2 passes and the vote-by-mail hybrid system is not implemented, the borough would then have to buy one of those ADA-accessible machines for every physical polling place in the borough, not just a few.
Bjorkman noted that purchasing a large number of ADA-compliant voting machines is slated to be slightly less expensive than the costs of implementing the new hybrid system, but not by much. The cure to the Alaska Human Rights Commission complaint costs less than the system created by the ordinance, he said.
Dunne said that while financial analysis does show the cost of implementing the vote-by-mail system to be higher in the first year, costs are projected to go down in the years after that.
Dunne said a thoughtful, deliberative process went into forming the recommendations by the stakeholder group and the eventual ordinance creating the hybrid system.
“It became obvious when we met as a group from around the borough that not only would this help voters with disabilities, this would help all voters and make it easier for people to go vote, and harder to cheat,” he said.
For Bjorkman, it’s about keeping physical polling places where they are and requiring voters to take an active roll in their voting process by requesting their own absentee ballots.
“By repealing (the ordinance) folks keep their local polling places open,” he said.
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