Opinions

Linking voter registration to PFD would create fundamental change

It takes a little effort to become a registered voter in Alaska. A new initiative would reverse the system so it would take a little effort to become ineligible to vote.

We would replace our "opt-in" system with an "opt-out" approach, potentially adding tens of thousands of names to the voter rolls.

Given the state's financial plight, I think there are far more pressing questions to debate in the next year, but the executive director of an organization of Native regional corporation leaders and other sponsors hope to collect enough signature to put the question to voters.

The idea is to make the application for a Permanent Fund Dividend do double duty as a voter registration form. Just about everybody finds the motivation to apply for a state check, even those who aren't interested in voting.

After filing for a PFD, potential new voters would become registered unless they respond to a formal notice from the state to decline the opportunity. If this becomes law, the existing provision that says you don't have to be a registered voter to collect a dividend will become blurred in the public imagination.

About 493,000 people signed up to get a check from the state a year ago, but tens of thousands of them did not bother to sign up to vote. We have more than 500,000 registered voters, but some of them are long gone from Alaska. Once your name appears on the list, it takes some doing for it to be removed, the end result of policies aimed at preventing states from targeting occasional voters and declaring them ineligible.

I understand the argument that requiring voter registration is a legacy of past efforts to disenfranchise people by making it harder to vote for those who are poor, uneducated, members of minority groups or not fluent in English.

But I question the notion that we've got tens of thousands of people in Alaska who would love to vote, but haven't done so because of the requirement to fill out a simple one-page form a month before an election.

The initiative says the state should not "introduce needless bureaucratic requirements" that make it more difficult to vote. Registration may be a hurdle, but it's not a high hurdle.

This requirement is not what keeps people from voting. Rather, it's an inability to recognize why voting is important, a problem that this initiative won't fix.

If people are so unmotivated that they won't spend 10 minutes filling out a form, they are probably not paying attention to what's going on in government or learning the issues. But should a failure to plan ahead be reason to deny them the ability to vote if they wake up on Election Day and want to cast a ballot? No.

I think experience shows that those who never miss an election can be just as uninformed as those who don't bother to register. Those who do register via this option, if it becomes law, are unlikely to suddenly change their non-voting habits. But if an organized campaign invests the energy and money, it will be able to bump up turnout by a few percentage points with a focus on getting people to the polls. This will make a difference in close races.

Republicans are likely to see this initiative as one that would benefit Democrats and hurt the GOP, but they will have trouble claiming this will lead to fraud -- the usual suspect in debates on relaxing voter signup rules -- because of the more restrictive residency limits established by the PFD program.

In 1993, the federal "motor voter" law called for more options to allow people to register, including linking the process to getting a driver's license. The PFD initiative would stop far short of same-day voter registration, which is either allowed or moving forward in 14 states. In North Dakota, there is no voter registration, just a residency requirement.

The Alaska driver's license application form asks those who fill it out if they want to register and there are multiple paths to registration for those who are so inclined.

The opening paragraph of the Alaska Constitution says that Alaskans have rights under the law. But it goes on to say that "all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and the state."

One of those obligations is voting.

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STREET WORK : Twice in recent weeks, a Republican Party newsletter has claimed that the street where Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz lives has just been repaved because he took office July 1.

"It's good to be mayor of Anchorage! This is what happens in your first two weeks in office to your home street, if your name is Berkowitz: Brand-spanking new asphalt," wrote Suzanne Downing, who wrote speeches for former Gov. Sean Parnell and now handles GOP communications.

But the maintenance records from the municipality make it clear that this is what happens if your mayor's name is Sullivan, as in the former mayor.

Alan Czajkowski, a longtime municipal official and project management director, said a maintenance supervisor decided on May 7 that the "road had failed to a point it needed repaving and sent it to our supervisor in charge of the paving crew."

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.

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