State of Alaska weighing options for conducting elections

JUNEAU — The state of Alaska is exploring options for conducting elections after 2018, as it is faced with an aging voting system and financial pressures amid an ongoing state budget deficit.

A bipartisan working group established by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is examining the issue.

Josie Bahnke, director of the state Division of Elections, said one option that has gotten attention is a hybrid system that would include allowing for early, in-person voting and voting by mail.

But she said discussions are preliminary and more research must be done to see if this approach would work in Alaska, a vast state with far-flung communities. In certain parts of Alaska, the state must provide language assistance, including for a number of Alaska Native languages and dialects.

The discussion over the future of how the state conducts its elections comes amid what the division sees as a move toward more early and absentee voting.

It also comes as Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, prepares to begin holding municipal elections by mail. One reason the city has cited for this approach is a desire to boost voter turnout.

Bahnke said the hope is to have draft recommendations completed by early next year. Any changes to how state elections are conducted would have to be approved by the Legislature, she said.

The Division of Elections, in a report earlier this year, said its current ballot tabulation system, purchased in 1998, still works and accurately counts ballots but has had problems.

Some equipment failed and had to be replaced during last year’s elections. Ballots were put into emergency bins and voting was uninterrupted but such issues can affect voter confidence, the report states.

The system was bought with a 20-year life expectancy, and it’s becoming more difficult to find parts, Bahnke said, noting that it could cost $6.7 million for a replacement. She said it will still be used for next year’s elections.

The working group is also looking at ways to save money. The division, in its report, said it expects that conducting elections by mail would save money but acknowledged it had not done a full cost analysis.

Leaders of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties have been monitoring the working group’s activities and are waiting to see what recommendations might be made.

Work group members plan to visit Colorado to see how that state’s system works, Bahnke said. Colorado is one of three states that holds elections entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

09/06/2017 - 12:24pm