The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to change the date of the regular municipal election from April to November starting in 2017.
Assemblyman Chris Birch, who introduced the measure, said that moving the city's elections would boost voter turnout, citing historical data that recent city races have drawn 20 to 35 percent of voters, while there has been a 50 to 60 percent turnout for recent state races held in the fall.
The ordinance passed in a six to four split, with Assembly members Tim Steele, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman and Dick Traini opposing the change. Patrick Flynn was absent from the vote. Mayor Dan Sullivan has said he supports the switch.
While some Assembly members offered other solutions to amp up voter turnout, like switching to mail-in votes or connecting voting to Permanent Fund Dividends, all who commented stressed the need to bring more voters to the polls.
"The bottom line is you want voters that understand the issues and are there to vote on the issues," said Steele.
"I think there's a lot of different ways to get to the end goal, this might just be one piece of it," said Assemblywoman Amy Demboski. "I think there's a lot of different ways to get there, but I'm willing to go down this path and try it."
But municipal clerk Barbara Jones said the clerk's office has pushed other efforts to increase voter turnout like promotions on Twitter and Facebook. Wrapped up with the upcoming election in April, the clerks office hasn't had the time to express an opinion on Birch's measure, she said.
"I think the Assembly needs to make sure that it's taking the time to study this issue, to understand this issue, to avoid any unintended consequences," she said.
Gail Fenumiai, Alaska Elections Director, wrote a memo to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell on Jan. 30 enumerating potential issues with running concurrent municipal and state elections like an election worker shortage, voter confusion and state ownership of election equipment.
"Detailed discussions would need to take place to determine the best process to conduct these elections in the most efficient manner while avoiding voter confusion and maintaining the public's trust of the electoral process," the letter said. "This takes time."
Anchorage's April elections date back to the early 1990s, after a campaign by former Assemblyman Jim Kubitz to switch the date from October.
Birch originally sponsored legislation that would change the municipal election date in 2014. But the ethics board said that represented a conflict of interest for Assembly members, who could earn as much as $20,000 in extra salary if a change were made this year. Birch has represented South Anchorage for nearly nine years and term limits bar him from running again.
"We've talked this thing around and around here for the last few months," Birch said. He said he expects any implementation concerns to be sorted out in the next few years.
The deadline to register to vote in the upcoming municipal election on Tuesday, April 1 is Sunday, March 2.
By Tegan Hanlon