A fairly routine piece of legislation got a lengthy discussion at Tuesday’s borough assembly meeting. The assembly was less than enthusiastic about supporting the recommendations made by an elections work group, aimed at expanding access to the polls and increasing voter turnout.
The election stakeholders group finished up last month, after more than seven months of work looking at how to improve the election process on the Kenai. Concerns ranged from simple access to polling sites for disabled voters, to security to the borough’s chronically low turnout rates, hovering in the mid-20 percent range.
A ten page final report was produced with a number of recommendations, chief among them, a switch a hybrid voting system where voters could make their choice by mail or in person. That idea, meant to give people more flexibility to exercise their rights, was a sticking point. Assembly member Norm Blakely said the borough shouldn’t extend voting options to people who don’t show up at polling places.
“I don’t understand why we’re doing these type things. The vote by mail, I mean if you don’t have enough integrity in you or you don’t get out and you don’t process what’s going on in the community and somebody has to send you a ballot so you can vote by mail rather than getting out and doing all your due diligence and exploring that...I just think this is an area where we don’t need to get into it and I’m not going to support it.”
Turnout in the last election for the two Sterling districts Blakely represents was well below the borough average. The unincorporated area of Sterling is home to about 6,000 people. Barely 400 voted in 2018.
It’s a similar story in Nikiski, represented by assembly president Wayne Ogle. Fewer than half of its 4,500 residents are even registered and of those who are, only about 300 voted last year. Ogle said he appreciated the work the stakeholders group put in, but he didn’t want the assembly signaling its full support with a resolution.
“This resolution is showing support that I cannot possibly support in giving general aid and comfort to a resolution that’s going to be used to persuade other municipalities that the Kenai Peninsula borough assembly is on board with these recommendations. That I cannot do.”
Beyond the vote by mail suggestion, other recommendations include starting a voter outreach campaign to increase turnout, doing away with the pro and con statements that are included on some ballot measures and getting rid of some elected positions altogether. Service area board races are rarely contested and sometimes seats go unfilled for a lack of willing candidate. But appointing those members instead of electing them was also a point of contention.
Whether the resolution passed or not wasn’t a make or break deal for these proposed election reforms, as assembly member Willy Dunne pointed out. Turnout in his southern peninsula districts tends to beat the borough average at 25-30 percent.
“Again, we’re exploring these options. The joint resolution shows general support for the hard work done by the election stakeholders group. Any necessary changes to borough code would have to have a full public process; would have to be proposed, introduced, go through public hearings. So by adopting the resolution, you’re not changing anything right now.”
But those changes could start happening soon. The resolution, which included all the borough’s cities, was ultimately adopted by a 5-4 vote. An ordinance to amend borough code so service area board members would be appointed rather than elected will get a hearing next month.