Muni vote-by-mail election lets public know whether you’ve voted
The Municipality of Anchorage's new vote-by-mail system is changing how campaigns run, and what people can find out about your vote.
Instead of a big build-up to Election Day, voters now have three weeks to vote – giving campaigns and regular citizens alike the opportunity to keep track of who's voting.
Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones’ office is busy sorting thousands of ballots. More than 35,000 people have already voted in this year's election, and Election Day isn't until next week.
Democratic pollster Ivan Moore, working for incumbent Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, has revamped how the campaign spends its advertising money.
“It's the same game – the rules have changed a little bit,” Moore said. “Instead of the way we did it before, which was to concentrate a whole bunch of media in that week or 10 days, now it's pushed back – and you really have got to be advertising when the ballots hit 3 weeks out.”
Republican strategist Marc Hellenthal agrees. He doesn't have a candidate this election but says if he did, when it comes to ads, he'd suggest trying to catch last-minute voters at this point in the race.
“You spend money before the first ballots went out,” Hellenthal said. “Whatever money they have, to do it near the end, to hopefully catch a gallop.”
Campaigns haven’t changed how they're reaching voters. What has changed is who they're reaching.
“We've done it in the past by doing vote banks and by advertising, and now it's a little different because you know who has and who hasn't (voted),” Moore said.
Campaigns can now get a daily list from the clerk's office with the names and addresses of people who have already voted.
“That benefits groups, organized groups, with a list and a means of contacting their members,” Hellenthal said.
Groups, unions and religious organizations can sway an election, Hellenthal says, by targeting members who haven't voted – instead of chasing after people who already turned their ballot in.
“Their vote is skewed much higher than it would be normally,” Hellenthal said.
In fact, anyone who asks the clerk's office can get the list. And now one of the 20 people who have done so is sharing that information on a very public forum.
On Tuesday, Republican-leaning blog Must Read Alaska called out politicians like Berkowitz and Democratic former Sen. Mark Begich for voting -- and former Anchorage Daily News owner Alice Rogoff and radio talk show host Dave Stieren for not doing so.
In another use of the vote-by-mail ballot data, Anchorage "bathroom bill" Proposition 1 opponents with Fair Anchorage have sent out mailings this week to voters who haven't yet cast ballots.
One letter, received by a KTVA photographer, lists whether the recipient and a neighbor have voted in the muni's last three elections.
"We're sending this mailing to you and your neighbors to share who does and does not vote in an effort to promote participation in the upcoming election," the letter read. "We will be reviewing these records after the election to determine whether or not you joined your neighbors in voting."
Fair Anchorage spokeswoman Kati Ward said Thursday evening that the mailings went out Wednesday.
While the group is removing people who have voted from mailing lists for the letters and apologizing to people offended by them, Ward said studies have shown that social pressure from similar letters -- which have been used in Alaska elections since at least 2014, according to the Anchorage Daily News -- is an effective way of encouraging people to vote.
"Democracy works best when most people are participating," Ward said.
Another group, the Alaska Center, has sent out another set of letters. The organization, which focuses on a range of democracy, climate, community and clean-air issues, has endorsed Berkowitz's re-election bid; its letter highlights one recipient's previous voting record and asks that person to vote this year as well.
"We hope that you will continue your record of voting in the important election this year," the letter read.
In a Thursday interview, Julie Wise -- the director of election services for Washington's King County, covering the city of Seattle -- defended voting by mail as a way to preserve turnout figures in an era of fewer voters going to the polls.
"We haven't necessarily seen an increase in turnout with vote by mail," Wise said. "But what we have seen is that across the country, where they are still polling elections, is that there is a decrease in voter participation and turnout where we have seen a pretty steady voter turnout here in King County."
Voting by mail has made it easier to vote, and to see who's voted – but what remains to be sorted out is if it encourages more people in Anchorage to vote.
“Nobody really knows right now; this is our first experience with it,” Hellenthal said.
The clerk's office has always provided a daily list of absentee ballots received, but that number was small during elections held at polling places. Now that essentially everyone is voting absentee in their homes, that list is much longer and more advantageous.
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