The Kenai Peninsula Borough is looking at instituting voting by mail as early as the 2020 elections. Initially, the reason was part of a conciliatory agreement with the Alaska Human Rights Commission over a complaint that borough polling locations lacked accessibility.
These days, the coronavirus pandemic is adding even more reason to pivot from in-person voting. The borough commissioned a feasibility study on voting by mail from Resource Data, Inc. Dennis Wheeler presented a summary in a work session for the assembly Tuesday.
“Poll workers are not going to want to get together in confined areas where it’s difficult to social distance and deal with an influx of public to hand out ballots,” Wheeler said. “It’s something to think about — what impact would COVID have on your ability to staff up, as well as what are the voters going to do and how are they going to react.”
Wheeler outlined several benefits of voting by mail. Voter participation tends to improve — a 7 to 10 percent bump is predicted for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Voter confidence increases because voters have more time to consider their ballots and research their options. After the initial investment and setup, it’s easier to conduct voting by mail, rather than gearing up volunteers, locations and supplies for polling locations year after year. And the borough would no longer have to rely on the state’s Accu-Vote machines to scan ballots.
Those machines are well over 25 years old. They’re no longer reliable. Getting parts for them is a problem. Memory cards fail, they have to be recalibrated, reprogrammed and re-issued. So that’s becoming more and more of an issue,” Wheeler said.
There are challenges to making the switch, especially if it were to happen this year. A ballot-sorting machine likely could not be obtained by fall, since many municipalities across the country are moving to voting by mail. Wheeler says the borough could contract with Anchorage to use their equipment this year or train personnel to sort by hand.
Reaching all registered voters can be difficult. The state maintains a database but voters aren’t great about updating their addresses. And it takes time to build a database of signatures of registered voters to verify ballots. Wheeler recommends still offering some in-person polling opportunities as a by-mail system gets up and running.
Whatever the borough decides to do, Wheeler says communication will be key.
“This is critically important, of course, because you’re changing the way people vote. You try to let them know, ‘Hey, expect this in the mail, don’t throw it away as junk mail. You’re going to have two to three weeks to vote, here’s how you do it. If you have any problems or questions call this number, go to this website, come into a vote center, we can help you. If you didn’t receive your ballot within a certain number of days when we said you should, call us, we’ll get a replacement to you. If there’s some problem with your address, we can figure that out.’ Answer the questions about security and signature verification and all those kinds of things,” Wheeler said.
An ordinance to allow the borough to conduct voting by mail is scheduled for a public hearing at the June 2 assembly meeting. The cities of Kenai, Soldotna and Homer are looking into voting by mail, as well.