Unless there’s a dramatic reversal in votes from absentee ballots, residents in the Kenai Peninsula Borough have likely voted to repeal an ordinance that created a hybrid election system, keeping it from being implemented next year.
Preliminary results from Tuesday’s municipal election show the proposition to repeal a borough ordinance that established a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system is passing by a wide margin, with 6,431 votes in favor of the ballot measure and 3,171 votes against it — a margin of 3,260 votes, almost all the remaining uncounted ballots. A “yes” vote repeals the ordinance and means the hybrid election system will not be implemented. A “no” vote meant voters wanted to keep the hybrid system in place.
Preliminary results also show a proposition made to Ninilchik and Anchor Point voters about whether to combine forces to make one large service area for fire and medical response protection passing in both communities.
These results are not official and could change. As of Tuesday night, the borough had received 3,538 absentee ballots that will need to be counted, according to Deputy Borough Clerk Michele Turner. The official election results will be certified on Tuesday, Oct. 13.
Prop 1: Western Emergency Service Area
Yes votes: 245
No votes: 117
Yes votes: 368
No votes: 197
Proposition 1, which asked voters in Ninilchik and Anchor Point whether they wanted to create one large fire and emergency medical response area to cover both communities, is passing as of Tuesday night, with 613 total votes in favor, and 314 votes against it. These are the total of votes from both communities.
In order for the ballot measure to pass, a majority of people in both communities needed to vote yes. That is, if one community passed the proposition but the majority of residents in the other community voted it down, the measure would fail.
Currently, Anchor Point has a fire and EMS service area under the arm of the borough that’s paid for by property taxes. They have paid staff members as well as volunteers. Ninilchik has a mostly volunteer fire and EMS department that is not a service area under the borough and is run by a nonprofit. Ninilchik Emergency Services has only one paid staff member, its chief, and has long been struggling to provide consistent service to the community, proponents of the ballot measure say.
Proposition 1 asked if voters from both communities wanted to create one large service area that encompasses both areas, as well as the space between them, to be called the Western Emergency Service Area. The service area would be headed up by one chief and one assistant chief. Resources, vehicles and equipment would be shared throughout the larger service area, which would be paid for by property taxes in the form of a 2.95 mill rate. That mill rate represents a small increase from what Anchor Point residents are already paying for their borough service area, but represents a larger spike in property taxes for Ninilchik residents, who currently do not pay for their service area.
The service area would stretch north to the boundary where Central Emergency Services ends, and south to the boundary where Kachemak Emergency Services begins, essentially leaving no gaps in service. In addition to being funded by property taxes from residents, the service area also includes several oil and gas properties in Cook Inlet, and would receive taxes from them as well.
The 2.95 mills levied in both communities will be enough to hire five additional full-time positions, to add to the existing five positions in the current Anchor Point Fire and EMS Service Area. The large combined service area would therefore have 10 total full-time staff members, as well as a host of volunteer medics and firefighters hailing from both communities.
The nonprofit organization that currently runs Ninilchik Emergency Services would be allowed to continue and would serve as an avenue for people to donate to the service area if they wanted to.
In Ninilchik, some residents, like Chad Harris voted against created the combined service area. Others, like Penny Connealy, voted in favor. Connealy said she’s excited about the opportunities a combined service area would “bring the little town of Ninilchik.”
“More expanded equipment, expanded opportunities because of just the money available,” she said. “Permanent positions, just more of everything that we need.”
In Anchor Point, voter Cliff Shafer voted against the service area. Shafer, who said he used to serve in the Anchor Point service area, said it’s big enough already.
“I don’t encourage the government to get bigger,” he said. “… I think fire people, they’re doing a good job, but there is a limit. You know, this is a small community with small dollars, and you only have what you can afford.”
Another pair of Anchor Point voters, Rick and Marie Carlton, felt the combined service area would be a boon.
“I think it’s better — we’ll get more employees, we’ll get better coverage,” Marie Carlton said. “And it’s needed.”
Poll workers in both the Anchor Point and Ninilchik precincts said the locations were busier then in years past. There were 261 regular ballots cast in Anchor Point by about 2:40 p.m., along with four special needs ballots and 13 question ballots. In Ninilchik, there were 260 votes cast by about 3:30 p.m., though poll workers noted that the machine had been having problems registering votes earlier Tuesday morning.
Proposition 2 asked voters throughout the entire borough whether they wanted to repeal Ordinance 2020-24, which set up a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
A “yes” vote on Proposition 2 would repeal the ordinance that created the hybrid vote-by-mail system.
A “no” vote on Proposition 2 would keep the ordinance in place. The hybrid system would have become effective on Jan. 1, 2021.
Because a large majority of residents voted “yes,” if the vote stands, the ordinance will be repealed and the hybrid election system will not go into effect.
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. The referendum petition got enough signatures and was put on the 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.
Now that ordinance will likely be repealed (as long as there is not a major shift from absentee ballots) and the hybrid system will not go into effect, the borough will still need to make good on its conciliation agreement with the Alaska Human Rights Commission. It will have to purchase equipment to make every polling location on the peninsula ADA accessible.
Some voters at the polls Tuesday were in favor of a hybrid election system that includes mail-in voting. Matt Sanford of Kenai was one of them, and he voted not to repeal the borough ordinance.
“I think we need more mail-in voting around here,” Sanford said. “People should be able to vote however they want.”
Others who voted to keep the hybrid system in place had experience with vote-by-mail elections in other states before coming to Alaska. In Anchor Point, the Carltons had already voted by mail in the municipal election, and only went to the Anchor Point polling place on Tuesday to check and make sure their ballots had been received.
They moved to Alaska from Washington State, where they said voting by mail was easier for them, and they got used to it.
“I just think people at their own kitchen table, if they’re able to look at their voters pamphlet and make a decision not by somebody yelling at them or watching a certain channel on TV or something like that, I think they make a better choice when they are not pressured,” Rick Carlton said.
The couple worked in a lot of on-call job situations, so mailing in their ballots was easier than being able to take time off to go vote on election day.
“It was just easier with our jobs,” Marie Carlton said.
“Getting to a polling place often was not easy,” Rick Carlton said.
In Homer, voter Jennifer Gibson had a similar story. Hailing from Oregon and new to Homer, she said Tuesday was the first time she had ever voted in person.
“So I definitely believe in the efficacy of voting from home,” Gibson said. “It’s way more convenient. This was not that bad, but you don’t have to make sure to get off work or make time in a day, or remember that day. You have weeks to get it out and think about it.”
Other voters leaving the polls Tuesday had issues with the hybrid election system. Shafer said he likes things the way they are.
In Ninilchik, Connealy said she voted to repeal the hybrid voting system ordinance because she doesn’t see a need for it down the line, when concerns about the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic have abated.
“There’s nothing wrong with our current voting system,” she said. “And this new normal isn’t going to be forever, and so therefore we don’t need to change anything because this thing isn’t going to be around forever.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.