Mat-Su voters should think carefully before moving elections to November

When Mat-Su voters read their voter pamphlet they will see a proposition to move the October local elections to November. While there is nothing about the upsides or downsides, a number of questions deserve some answers.

How much does it cost? Is it needed and what will it accomplish? Will it increase voter participation? How will it change the election process?

Currently the borough elections, together with local city elections, take place the first Tuesday in October every year. The borough borrows the state's voting machines and piggybacks city elections during the same voting process. In even-numbered years the state holds a general election a month later in November.

Moving the borough election to November would not actually combine it with the state's general election held in even-numbered years. The state and borough would each run their own election with separate ballots, separate polling areas and separate voting machines. Polling areas would need to be carefully organized so voters clearly understood which election they would be voting in.

Local city elections would remain in October unless each city votes to make the change. The city of Palmer would have to change its charter. How the city elections would be affected by the borough's proposal to move them are not part of the borough ballot proposition, but there are consequences.

When the idea of combined borough and state elections was last floated in 2012, the cost for new machines was estimated at $125,000. The borough would have to find, train and hire a second set of 160 election workers instead of employing the experienced people who currently work both October and even-year November elections.

Only the sparsely populated Denali Borough, with less than 1,700 registered voters, currently holds its election in November. Even-numbered years with the state general election tend to bring out more voters. Odd-numbered years, far less. In Mat-Su, with 64,000 voters, annual local election turnout is more consistent year to year, fewer than Denali in even years, more than Denali in odd years.

Denali's last odd-year election of 2013 saw less than 9 percent of the voters casting ballots. Low turnouts also happened in 2007 and 2009 -- 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Mat-Su voters turned out 18.83 percent at the 2013 October election. In 2007, 23 percent voted and in 2009, 25 percent.

In reality, election interest can peak or dive depending on the candidates and hot issues at each specific election. This year three of seven Assembly seats are open, the mayor and three of seven school board seats -- the largest election in the three-year cycle. If odd-year elections in November tend to decrease voter participation, it's a strong reason not to make the proposed change.

Local elections in Alaska are nonpartisan by law. Separate municipal elections give some breathing space to local problem-solving. Local issues can be free from the entanglements of legislative, state and federal partisan bickering that often boils over in the November general elections.

Bottom line is, are we willing to spend a lot of money to risk a huge decrease in voter participation in odd-numbered years even if more voters might cast ballots in even-numbered years? Something to consider before casting an informed vote.

Jim Sykes serves on the Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly. The preceding personal opinion is not an official one, and the Mat-Su Borough Assembly has not taken a position on this issue.

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, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com