Anchorage now votes by mail: Here's why
Right now, Anchorage is in the middle of its first-ever vote by mail election -- the implementation of a system the Anchorage Assembly voted to explore in 2015.
While it's too soon to measure the success of the new method, perhaps it's useful to remember how the change came about, what's happening with ballots right now and what the research shows in other states.
Public elections in Anchorage have rarely attracted big turnouts. But in 2010, voter numbers reached a low.
"It was running about 19 percent or less. And how representative is the election of the population if no one's showing up to vote?" Assembly Chairman Dick Traini said, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1989.
Turnout was so low in 2010, that the city began ordering less ballots, which lead to a shortage in 2012 when more Alaskans did show up at the polls.
For more than half of the last decade, the Assembly has been looking to other states for solutions. Washington, Oregon and Colorado now vote by mail only -- according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
"And we've seen state after state try and go to this," Traini notes.
When the Anchorage Assembly presented the idea in 2015, members and the public seemed on board to explore it.
"I would stress that the Assembly pass this resolution and look forward to getting more people involved in the voting process," said Keith McGee of Muldoon, during a December 2015 public comment session on the measure.
"It's really an issue of time. It's time to share the issues with my kids, time to sit down and talk about it -- and it doesn't even take that much time to drop it in the mail," added Kim Hays of Kincaid.
Assemblyman Chris Constant, who was President of the Fairview Community Council at the time noted the council's unanimous support for Vote-by-Mail.
But by 2016, some had their doubts.
"Is there a plan in place to see that the information is accurate? And follow through that it's accurate?" wondered Carol Ashlock of Dimond at a March 2016 hearing on the topic.
"To your question about efficacy and how do we protect the data coming in, quite frankly, we don't have any guarantees yet," replied Assemblywoman Amy Demboski.
Demboski became a project skeptic.
"The more I saw what was happening and specifically in 2015, what I saw happen in the mayor's election in the runoff, is after we certified the election, they found bags of ballots," Demboski said in an interview Tuesday. "That was a big turnoff for me."
Now, with the first wave of ballots already out, Demboski's still glad she didn't support it.
"When you have residents that are calling you [saying] 'I lost my ballot or I have five ballots or my mail was stolen,' was that really the best way to go? I'm not sure it was," Demboski said.
Forty-six ballots were stolen in Demboski's district, and the story prompted reports of other issues.
"We knew there'd be a few bumps along the way, but if we can get the population of voting up to the 40,50,60 percent range and higher, isn't that really worth it?" Traini said.
It's hard to tell whether it has been worth it in other states.
A study published by the U.S Election Assistance Commission looked at voting by mail in California, where in some cases, turnout went down.
Washington had it's lowest voter turnout ever last year, well after it made the switch.
"I don't really buy that it was all about voter turnout, I don't buy that it was just about saving money," Demboski said.
Demboski claims it's about politics. But like it or not, both Demboski and Traini agree that vote by mail is here to stay.
"So get used to it, buy some stamps --those little tiny things or go put it in a drop box," Traini adds. "Technology's going to win eventually. It always has."
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