JUNEAU -- Permanent Fund dividends have done great things for the Alaska residents, but could they also do something for the state?
State officials have long been trying to boost the state's voter turnout, but before Alaskans can vote, they have to be registered. That's where the dividend comes in.
Alaskans seeking annual dividends that can range from $1,000 to $2,000 or more have been diligent about signing up to qualify for their PFDs, and then reapplying every year. But they've been less dutiful about registering to vote. Elections officials think that tens of thousands of Alaskans who are eligible for dividends are not registered. Because of the strict residency standard for qualifying for a dividend, those same people probably qualify to vote as Alaskans, election officials say.
While national initiatives like the "motor voter" law linking voter registration to driver's license applications seem to be helping, but some think more can be done closer to home. Kim Reitmeier is one of them. She's working with others on a ballot initiative that could merge Permanent Fund dividend applications with voter registration.
"We're constantly watching what other states are doing and how we can adopt best practices, but obviously in Alaska we have this great thing called the PFD, which you know hits such a large number of Alaskans," said Reitmeier, executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, a group representing the chief executive officers of the regional Native corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
And Anchorage college student Tim Kacillas has seen the same thing on the University of Alaska-Anchorage campus when he asks fellow students if they are going to cast a ballot.
"They'd say, 'Oh, I forgot to register to vote,'" Kacillas said.
But if he asked about their dividend, the answer was different.
"Almost every single person was, like, 'Oh no, I've got my PFD,'" Kacillas said.
What Reitmeier and Kacillas are trying to do is to make voter registration as ubiquitous as dividend registrations. And PFD applications have to be done annually, so people who move and forget to update their voter registrations would be able to do it through the PFD process.
They are both sponsors of the initiative petition filed with the Division of Elections. The petition is now being reviewed by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, with the assistance of the Division of Elections and the Department of Law. If the lieutenant governor certifies it for the ballot as meeting constitutional questions, the division will produce petition booklets for circulation.
While it takes only signatures of 100 qualified voters to get to the review process, qualifying for the ballot is much harder. It takes signatures of 10 percent of the votes cast in the last general election, with minimum numbers coming from at lest three-fourths of the state's legislative districts.
The deadline for the lieutenant governor's review is Aug. 10, said Gail Fenumiai, elections division director.
Fenumiai said the state's computer system that handles voter registration and election information can't handle the proposed linkage to the Permanent Fund Dividend Division's computer system.
"It's a 30-year-old-plus mainframe that doesn't have a lot of flexibility on what it can or cannot do," she said.
That's kept the Division of Elections from acting on its own to use PFD data to find unregistered voters, she said.
"We just can't accept electronic files into our system, and we have no data-matching programs," she said.
But a new voter system is in the works with scheduled fall installation that could handle the PFD linkage, she said. Her "rough" estimate of the cost of modifying the new system to handle the PFD information is $500,000, plus another possible $300,000 to mail registration cards to new voters and temporary employees to handle the work.
A number of years ago the Division of Elections tried to find new voters by matching PFD data with its own. Fenumiai said she no longer had any records on that effort, but thinks it might have turned up 70,000 unregistered potential voters.
PFD Division Director Sara Race said the dividend application already captures most of the information the initiative requires. If the initiative was to be implemented, her office "would be looking at making minor modifications to the dividend application," Race said. The division has no position on the initiative, she said.
The initiative sponsors, who don't yet have a name for their effort, say they doubt there will be any constitutional issues with their proposal, and that the technical issues can be resolved easily.
Reitmeier called the non-partisan proposal a "no-brainer" that would simplify registration for Alaskans, with no downside.
"There are a significant number of Alaska residents who are not registered to vote," she said. "This wouldn't make them vote, but this offers up the opportunity, and that's what we want to provide."
But if the idea is so good, why not simply ask the legislature to do it on its own instead of the lengthy and usually costly initiative process?
Reitmeier said that might not be a productive effort, judging by recent legislative action, or inaction.
In this year's legislative session, bills were introduced by Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, that call for online voter registration and other improvements. They were unable to get hearings in either the House or Senate. Past sessions' efforts to ease voter registration have generally stalled in their first committee, as legislators showed more interest in fighting voter fraud than simplifying registration.
One bill that passed out of the House State Affairs Committee last year was sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, that would require a photo identification to vote.
Fenumiai testified then that the state had no evidence of any voter fraud that could have been prevented by requiring a photo ID.
Lynn has been vocal in saying Alaska needs to do more to prevent voter fraud, saying that even a single fraudulent vote could swing a close election and that one fraudulent vote is one too many. He did not return phone calls about the initiative.
This year, Lynn chairs the House State Affairs Committee which has denied a hearing on the online voter registration bill, sponsors say.
Reitmeier indicated that may have played a role in the decision to ask the people to establish the PFD voter registration program through the initiative process, but declined to criticize the legislators.
"From what we've seen lately, the way things are going right now, this might be a faster approach," she said.
Reitmeier said one concern that's been raised about the initiative is from people who don't want to be registered to vote because they fear it will increase their chances of being called for jury duty. That's a misconception, she said, because in Alaska jury rosters are drawn from PFD applications, not voter rolls.