Here’s how Anchorage will ensure the upcoming vote-by-mail election is secure

Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy and allow the opportunity for you to express your opinions on federal, state and local issues. Anchorage municipal elections are an excellent opportunity for you to express and put into action your opinions on issues that impact your daily life, including the roads you drive on, the schools your children attend, the parks you visit and funding for the public safety and first responders on which you rely, not to mention the effect of larger social and economic issues at the local level. You expect and deserve a voting system that ensures your opinions, as expressed on your ballot, are properly handled and counted.

I want to describe the security measures that are in place for the new vote-by-mail system so you know what the municipality of Anchorage is doing to make sure the election is secure.

Starting on March 13, ballots will be mailed to qualified, registered voters at mailing addresses voters designate through the state of Alaska's voter registration database. The database is constantly maintained and updated by the state of Alaska. The municipality draws from that database several times up through the date of mailing the ballots so it is using the most current information it can get. Qualified voters who do not receive a mailed ballot can contact the municipality's voter hotline at 243-VOTE (8683) to request a ballot or visit an accessible vote center to cast a ballot. Information about hours, locations and other features of voting by mail is available at muni.org/electionsFAQ.

In the mailing, you will receive a ballot, instructions, a security envelope and a return envelope. Once you mark your choices on the ballot, you place the ballot into the provided security envelope. You then put the security envelope into the provided ballot return envelope and sign the declaration on the outside of the return envelope. Signing the declaration is an important component to the security and integrity of our elections because your signature will be verified at the election center. Your ballot cannot be counted unless your signature can be verified. Do not combine your ballot with anyone else's and be sure to only use the return envelope with your name on it.

[Here's how Anchorage's 2018 vote-by-mail election will work]

You have your choice on a secure method to return your ballot. You can use first-class postage and send the ballot return envelope through the U.S. Postal Service. You can also return your ballot by placing the ballot return envelope in a secure drop box. Twelve secure drop boxes will be placed across the municipality of Anchorage, including one in Eagle River and one in Girdwood. 98 percent of residents live within five miles of one of these secure drop boxes, so we hope you will find them to be a convenient way to return your ballot. The drop boxes will be checked at least daily by election officials working in teams of two, which also ensures the security of the election. You can also bring your ballot return envelope to an accessible vote center.

Each ballot return envelope is assigned a unique identifier. When processed at the municipality's election center, the election system will match that identifier and sort out any envelope that is empty, has too much in it, does not have a match, is not from a qualified voter or indicates you have already voted in the election. Specially trained election officials will then verify your signature on the envelope against the state's signatures on file through a two-stage process.

If at any stage in this process there is a problem, election officials will notify you by mail (or phone or email if you provide these on the envelope and if there is sufficient time) and give you an opportunity to resolve the problem. If the problem is resolved, the envelope will proceed to opening. If the problem is not resolved, the ballot envelope will be provisionally rejected and sent to the Election Commission for final adjudication at the public session of canvas, which is a long-standing election procedure.

Once your signature is verified, the ballot return envelope is opened and the ballot is removed from the return envelope and security envelope for counting. This process is done in a way that hides your identity from the election officials who open and separate the ballots – just as it has always been done for forty years with absentee by-mail voting.

Both the system that handles the ballot return envelopes and the system that counts the ballots are in use in other states and counties. They have been tested, re-tested and certified, including certification of the ballot counting system by the Federal Election Assistance Commission. They are both "air gapped" systems, meaning they do not have hardwire or wireless connections to the internet and are not exposed to hacking through the internet. Access to the systems is controlled by user logins and, in the case of the ballot counting system, the required use of special encryption keys.

The election center is open to the public during the election. Anchorage voters are strongly encouraged to visit the space to view the process. The Election Center is protected by alarms, security cameras, cipher locks and other controls to protect the ballots. The public can view the processes from a large-screen television in the reception area of the MOA election center. Once checked in at the front counter, you can take a stroll through the MOA election center and have a 360-degree view of the processes from the "Yellow Brick Road," a designated pathway inside the election center.

As additional security, visitors are not allowed to use cameras or other digital devices that could capture confidential information when they are near or in the processing areas. Election officials are not allowed to have purses, coats, bags, pens or markers, other high-risk personal effects, or cameras or other digital devices in the processing areas of the election center. Election officials sign confidentiality agreements and have designated areas of responsibility and must follow the written procedures of the election center. Media members may have cameras for filming the process (because we want the public to know how the election system works), but only by permission and must agree to maintain the confidentiality of voter information and not shoot or publish video or pictures of such detail as to expose confidential information.

Ballots can be scanned starting seven days before the election, but results are not tabulated until after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day and will not be published to the public until after that time.

If there is any major unforeseen event during the election, the municipality has the ability — in consultation with and through a court order from a judge from the Alaska Court System — to take appropriate action to preserve and protect the election process, including extending the election and involving law enforcement. In addition, should there be any significant problem with the election systems (software, hardware), the paper ballots are preserved for at least 30 days from the date of certification to be available for any recount or legal challenge.

Please take advantage of this new way of voting and let your opinion be known on or before April 3.

Dennis Wheeler, with Resource Data Inc., is the project manager of Anchorage's vote-by-mail election.