Assembly overturns veto; by-mail voting stands

Jul 8, 2020

Credit Wiki Commons

The borough’s addition of a vote-by-mail option, set to go into effect next year, will stand for now, after the assembly overturned borough mayor Charlie Pierce’s veto.

The ordinance allows voters to choose to vote by mail, but polling places and absentee ballots will still be available. It also extends the amount of time between an election and a run-off, and removes proposition statements from the voter information packet. The ordinance came from a stakeholder working group on election reform, following a lawsuit about equal access to voting within the borough.

Pierce vetoed the ordinance prior to the assembly meeting Tuesday, which the assembly had previously passed at its June 16 meeting. He said he wants borough residents to vote on it rather than have the assembly make the choice. In his memo, he cited concerns about security as well.

The assembly originally passed the ordinance 6-3, with members Norm Blakeley, Jesse Bjorkman, and Kenn Carpenter opposing it, and that was exactly how the votes went on Tuesday night as well. Most of the debate centered on whether the question of whether to do it should go on the ballot. Bjorkman cited reactions to a Facebook post from KSRM News, a central peninsula-area radio station, as evidence that the majority of Kenai Peninsula residents don’t support the ordinance.

"Not scientific, not in any way a clear, like, vote, but that is a substantial margin," he said. "It’s not close. People voted in 2014 to have an all-vote-by-mail system that is substantially different than what we’re talking about now, but the. concept is very much the same. The people of the Kenai Peninsula borough don’t want ballots being mailed out to everyone. If you want to vote by mail, you already can."

This screencapture from Wednesday, July 8, 2020 shows a Facebook poll on Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce's political page.

Pierce echoed Bjorkman’s comments and cited the City of Soldotna’s annexation attempt as another time when the government doesn’t want people to vote. He said his veto was an attempt to give them a voice in the process.

"I appreciate all the hard work that the committees and the work groups do," he said. "I do, I respect it. You came up with a lot of good ideas. and suggestions and solutions to a lot of problems. But I guess I’d say we need to do a better job of teaching and gaining that trust where people in general so that when the radio station does the next survey, the numbers are flipped."

Assembly president Kelly Cooper said she’s frustrated by misinformation about voting by mail and cited a Facebook post on Pierce’s political page saying the ordinance would make voting by mail mandatory, which it does not. Pierce replied that he has First Amendment rights as an elected official.

Assembly member Tyson Cox says the assembly should be careful about using social media as a stand-in for public opinion.

"I think it’s a little deceptive to start thinking about, ‘Let’s use social media and trust those polls to make our decisions,’"  Can any of you imagine if we made all our decisions by polls on Facebook? This is ridiculous. Let’s make our decision from talking to people, from maybe getting emails and things, and leave social media out of that."

With the veto overturned, the ordinance will go into effect by January 2021, with the borough conducting public education on how it works before the 2021 election. In the meantime, Blakeley and Bjorkman are spearheading an effort to place a referendum to overturn the ordinance on the October 6 ballot. In order to appear on the municipal election ballot, the completed petition booklets would need to be returned to the clerk’s office by July 27.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.