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A civics lesson from Iraq could help Alaska increase voter turnout

  • Author: Sen. McGuire
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 14, 2015

I have a friend who served in the Army National Guard in 2004 and 2005 during the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation. When he was sent out on patrol, the hostility and resentment of Iraqis was palpable. It was easy to "win" a war by superior force, but winning hearts and minds proved to be an entirely different battle.

Then something changed, he said. Iraqis, for the first time in generations, took to the polls in an election contest that would not be predetermined.

My friend was stunned at the result. To the Americans, the right to vote changed everything. Smiles and waves replaced glaring Iraqi stares. Having a voice, being involved and being invested made all the difference.

According to the Institute for Democracy and Elections, Iraqi voter turnout in the 2005 election was 79.6 percent. By contrast, voter turnout in Alaska's last election was just better than 50 percent, even though 2014 saw hotly contested seats for governor and U.S. Senate. In many election years, turnout is well below half of all registered voters.

To Alaskans who care deeply about our state's future, persistently low voter turnout is cause for concern.

Why don't more people vote? Do they not care? Are the concerns of a single day so great that they outweigh the value of participating in our democracy and by extension Alaska's long-term future? Do half of all Alaskan voters feel powerless and disenfranchised? Or, are the bulk of Alaskans satisfied with the status quo and feel no compelling reason to participate?

I see two intertwined factors that may prevent so many of our friends and neighbors from going to the polls: compelling reason, and inconvenience.

Iraqis turned out in huge numbers because they had a compelling reason to vote, but the interim government also made voting very convenient. Just be old enough, and dip your finger in the purple ink.

With Alaska facing staggering budget shortfalls on the one hand, and nearing the decision point on the Alaska LNG megaproject on the other, there has never been a more compelling reason for Alaskans to head to the polls. As I visited with Alaskans from across the state during last year's election cycle, I heard voters express confusion, and at times frustration, with our paper-bound process.

Could we make the voter experience more convenient? What about same-day registration? What about registering to vote online, just like making a PFD application? How about allowing Alaskans to sign up online to vote by mail in every election, similar to Oregon and Washington state?

In March of this year, after months of research and review, I introduced Senate Bill 93 to enact all of these suggestions.

If passed, and signed into law, SB 93 would allow you to register to vote using your myAlaska account. If you preferred, you could sign up to vote by mail in every election, allowing you the flexibility of voting from home days in advance, regardless of your work schedule or icy road conditions.

Voters who are new to the state, or newly motivated to engage, could register and vote on the same day with one stop at their neighborhood polling location -- no faxing, no mailing, no waiting.

Like many Alaskans, I file for my Permanent Fund dividend every year online. I pay most of my bills online. It is quick, convenient and effective. You can even file for unemployment benefits online. Why would we not extend the same convenience to voter registration, the most basic of our American rights?

Also, like many, I registered to vote on my 18th birthday when I got my adult driver's license. Since most people have a state-issued driver's license, this convenience to register at the DMV has been effective. However, in many rural communities, the DMV office is a boat, plane or snowmachine ride away, but with increased availability of broadband telecommunications, we can make registering to vote just one simple mouse click away.

We have an opportunity to modernize Alaska voting. Some may still lack a compelling reason to engage, and it is their right not to vote. However, if we look honestly at ourselves, why would we not eliminate at least one of the barriers to increased voting turn out -- convenience?

In Iraq, having a voice, being involved and being invested made all the difference. In Alaska, we need to make sure that it is easy to exercise that voice because, like it or not, we are all invested in the outcome of political elections.

There has never been a more compelling reason to engage in Alaska politics. So much is at stake. The funding for our schools is under pressure and new taxes are being discussed. Now is the time to make voting more accessible than ever.

Sen. Lesil McGuire is a Republican who has served in the Alaska Legislature for the past 15 years representing South Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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