A spruced-up Ship Creek warehouse opened Thursday as the new hub for municipal elections, a nod to the near future when Anchorage will vote almost entirely by mail.
Elections officials held a grand opening Thursday for the city's new election center at 619 Ship Creek Ave. near downtown Anchorage. Yellow and blue balloons festooned a canopy outside and plastic blue anchors — the city's iconic symbol — lined the walls of the hallway near the front door. Inside, people finished their lunch with cupcakes with yellow frosting and blue sprinkles while inspecting brand-new voting equipment.
In past years when the polls have closed on Election Day in Anchorage, election workers have counted ballots and then brought voting machines and supplies to City Hall to aggregate the results.
That will change April 4. After counting, the supplies and machines will instead go to the Ship Creek warehouse, where elections officials will be stationed.
The move marks the end of a logistical headache for city elections staff. Elections traditionally take up as many as five or six separate conference rooms on separate floors of City Hall. During the election cycle, staff move and rearrange furniture multiple times.
But officials said the added space was also necessary for the new equipment associated with the city's planned shift to run the 2018 election primarily by mail.
At the Thursday event, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, state elections chief Josie Bahnke and several Anchorage Assembly members cut a blue ribbon in front of a large "Anchorage Votes" sign. Mallott is the state's top elections official. The Assembly oversees municipal elections.
"We're getting closer to the reality of reaching our dream of vote by mail here in Anchorage," Assemblyman Pete Petersen, chair of the Assembly's ethics and elections committee, said before the ribbon-cutting. "We're hoping that by this time next year, this center will be a buzz of activity of preparing for the (2018) mayoral election."
The 13,000-square-foot Ship Creek warehouse is owned by the Bristol Bay Native Corp. and had been a ConocoPhillips testing facility. The city reached a lease agreement with the Native corporation in December.
As part of a $60,000 fix-up, crews installed security cameras, put in a new floor and painted one wall a cheery light yellow.
The city is leasing the warehouse at a rate of $13,427 per month, or about a half-million dollars over the life of the current three-year contract.
The new space and the assortment of new equipment filling it Thursday came largely as a result of the plans to start running Anchorage elections by mail. Turning to vote-by-mail is geared toward boosting Anchorage's low voter turnout rates, officials say, and resolving problems with recruiting and retaining election workers. Turnout in city elections has typically averaged between 19 percent and 35 percent.
The cramped City Hall chambers would also be hard-pressed to handle voter turnout surpassing 50 percent, or more than 100,000 Anchorage ballots, said project manager Dennis Wheeler. Other places that have moved to vote-by-mail, such as King County, Washington, have seen similar vote turnout rates.
There's a lot of upfront investment — leased equipment is costing upward of $56,000 annually — but Wheeler said the new system is projected to save money in the long-term. Instead of 650 election workers, the city will only have to hire between 30 and 60 workers for a three-week period, said Wheeler, a former city attorney who now works for RDI Inc., an Anchorage-based software consulting company. (The Assembly agreed to a $300,000 consulting contract with Wheeler, extending from February 2016 to June 2017.)
In Alaska, only a few small precincts in the Kenai Borough currently run elections by mail. But that's set to change next year. City elections officials got the blessing of the Anchorage Assembly in December 2015 to explore voting by mail. This week, the Assembly voted to change city laws and procedures to allow vote-by-mail.
City clerk Barbara Jones recalled Thursday that the vote-by-mail idea stemmed from a training she and deputy city clerk Amanda Moser attended in Tacoma, Washington, in 2013. The trip led to a visit to the King County election center, the country's largest vote-by-mail return center, Jones said.
Jones and Moser aimed to hold the 2017 city election as vote-by-mail. But bidding for contracts and scoping out a new headquarters took longer than expected, Wheeler said.
One key piece of equipment is slated to arrive in July: A mail sorting machine, 20 feet long and about 4 feet wide, where the ballots will be sorted into slots. The machine, built by Illinois-based Bell & Howell, will also scan signatures so election officials can verify the voter's identity, Wheeler said. It's one of the reasons the city sought a larger space exclusively for elections, he said.
Other equipment was on display at the Thursday event: In one corner, computers and ballot scanning and counting machines built by Toronto-based Dominion Voting.
Across the room were long tables and a projector where election workers will be trained, Moser said. In two corners, stacked colored baskets were set up to help with ballot sorting.
In a circle in the middle of the room, yellow tape was placed on the floor. Wheeler, Jones and Moser called it "The Yellow Brick Road." During the election, members of the public can sign a confidentiality agreement that they won't disclose any confidential voter information they come across, enter the building with badges and observe the election process by walking in between the yellow tape, Wheeler said.
"We really want people to have faith that we're treating their votes and ballots with respect, and also protecting their privacy in terms of how they voted," Wheeler said. "And making sure there's no external influence on the process, so people can be assured we're giving them accurate results."
Security cameras will feed to a big-screen TV. Eventually, Wheeler said, the city hopes to post the video feed online, as is already done in other states.
When the city does switch to vote-by-mail, ballots will be mailed out about three weeks before the election. Voters can return the ballots either by post, at accessible voting centers or at drop boxes located mostly at school buildings around Anchorage. An example of one of the large metal drop boxes was on display at Thursday's event.
Wheeler said the city hopes the Ship Creek warehouse and vote-by-mail process could be used to host other elections in the future, whether for the state or nearby boroughs. The staggered election calendar could help: State elections are in August and November, while many other municipal elections are in October.