Assemblyman Chris Birch: City elections in November would boost turnout, cut costs

In regular (non-mayoral) city elections, 40,000 voters brave April snow and winds to trudge to the polls. Only 20 percent of city voters select the Anchorage Assembly and School Board that annually spends over $1 billion collected from taxpayers and the state. The merits of moving city elections to November to double voter turnout and save money deserve a community discussion.

Evidence from the last 20 years indicates that moving Assembly elections from April to the November state/federal general Election Day is likely to more than double voter turnout in Assembly election years to 40-50 percent. Over 80,000 voters would choose our Assembly, and 40,000 April trips to the polls would be unnecessary. Every six years another 30,000 trips will be saved when the mayoral election coincides with a state/federal election. Furthermore, sharing election costs for the merged general Election Day will save significant taxpayer money.

Prior to April 1994, city elections were held in October and turnout was 35-55 percent in mayoral years and 20-50 percent in Assembly years. After 1994, elections were moved to the spring and turnout fell to 30-35 percent in mayoral years and 20-35 percent in Assembly years. Moving elections from fall to spring substantially suppressed voter turnout.

Restoring fall elections to a November general Election Day will more than recover those lost voters. The evidence is from an unusual election held in November 2004 to approve two bond propositions. This municipal election was contracted to the state and held on the November 2004 general Election Day. This "orphan" special election had a stunning 52 percent turnout because the voters were already at the polls for the state and federal election. The two previous "orphan" city elections were not held in November (April 1976 bonds and December 1992 school board recall) and realized only a 17 percent turnout.

This reform is timely because coordination of local and state elections is only now practicable since last year's assembly reapportionment, which eliminated split precincts and streamlined the ability to coordinate state and municipal elections.

This reform will build efficiency, increase voter turnout and reduce municipal election costs. Some who oppose this reform are no doubt concerned that increased voter turnout in municipal elections will dilute the impact of special interests at the polls.

The most significant red herring dredged up with regard to this reform is accusations of ethics lapses. The fact is that the citizen Ethics Board was presented with an impossible conundrum. It could only advise on the narrow existing language of a municipal ethics code, which was drafted by people who never anticipated a situation where all of the Assembly could potentially be conflicted from voting on a reform that brings huge citizen benefits while extending current assembly member terms of office by seven months. However, the Assembly is not bound by the Ethics Board "Catch-22" advisory opinion. While the board was precluded from balancing the public benefits, it is incumbent upon Assembly members to consider these benefits during deliberations on an election date change.

The city attorney has issued an opinion that finds: "It is legally permissible for the Assembly by ordinance to change the regular annual municipal election date to November, to be effective in 2014, and to extend tenure of currently seated Assembly members to achieve that purpose."

It is proposed to move city elections from April to Election Day in November. It dramatically increases Anchorage residents' participation in their local government at less cost. Doing otherwise is to continue to spend money to inconvenience and suppress voting by the Anchorage municipal electorate. This change is about good government, and whether it is implemented three months or three years from now it is a change that is long overdue.

I know we can do better than 20 percent voter turnout and look forward to the discussion.

Chris Birch is a professional engineer and represents South Anchorage on the Assembly.