Anchorage is poised to embark on a grand experiment — voting by mail. Ballots will be sent out. Ballots will be returned. What possibly could go wrong?
The idea is to increase voter turnout and cut election costs by phasing out polling places. But if you happen to be part of the too-lazy-to-vote school responsible for some of the lousy turnouts in the city's recent history, allow me to thank you for staying home and not screwing up the works.
There are, it turns out, a lot of you. In the past 14 municipal elections, only about 1 in 4 registered voters, on average, even bothered to show up. In 2017's municipal election, 49,370 of the city's then-212,782 registered voters cast ballots. That's 23.2 percent if there actually were 212,782 registered voters — and who really knows? When turnout is compared to the city's entire population, 297,000, it drops to 17 percent, give or take.
A hotly debated topic across the nation, voting by mail is supposed to fix all that. Folks who cannot be bothered to stop at a voting booth for five minutes on the way home, or vote early, or vote absentee now magically will become enthusiastic, responsible citizens. They will open the ballot package, read the instructions, check the appropriate boxes, sign their name, return the ballot to the envelope, dig a stamp out of the junk drawer and hustle to the always reliable post office to mail the ballot. Maybe.
"That remains an open question, with no consistent evidence so far that voting by mail is drawing large numbers of new voters into civic engagement," the Christian Science Monitor reported in December. "Instead, the extra convenience seems to appeal primarily to voters who are already politically engaged."
Voting by mail works in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, but the idea is spreading at a glacial pace. It was rejected in Montana last year by legislative Republicans, likely because increased turnout axiomatically favors Democrats. Twenty-seven states allow absentee voting by mail.
Many remain skittish about ballot security, and there have been some cases of absentee voting fraud, in Florida and Texas, for example. There are other risks, of course, with voting by mail. The federal Election Assistance Commission says about 24 percent of 2016 presidential election votes — or 33 million — were cast by absentee ballot. Of those, nearly 400,000 were not counted. They were disqualified for anything from invalid signatures, to being late, to incorrectly filled out forms.
The Anchorage city clerk's office on Tuesday will send to Anchorage's registered voters the municipality's first-ever mail-in ballots, and voters have until April 3 to return them. Workers will check your signature on the envelope against a database to verify the enclosed ballot is legit.
For the campaign weary — and who isn't? — the city's new system is somewhat irksome. It mercilessly stretches the political silly season by weeks. Instead of concentrating campaign time, attention, money and noise on just a few days prior to an election, the circus likely will come to town the day the ballots are mailed. It will be door-knockers, mailings and political hoo-ha from the get-go. While the added few weeks of intense campaigning will be manna from heaven for the chattering class and consultants who make a living angling to snare your vote, the rest of us are left to endure the seemingly endless cacophony.
The added time also gives organizations such as unions and initiative proponents, not to mention political campaigns, more time to lean on you. When your ballot is returned to the municipal clerk in the days or weeks ahead of the election, the fact that you have or have not voted — not how you voted — will be publicly available immediately. In the past, that information was available quickly only from absentee voting.
City Clerk Barbara Jones says "there is lots of security," cyber and otherwise for the election. Your envelope and ballot will be processed, verified and scanned, and then shredded 30 days after the election. Those ballots will contain no personal information.
Will organizations sponsor "ballot parties" to get the votes they want? Will this group or that campaign laser-focus on you because you have not voted yet? Will the fake signature market boom? All are legitimate concerns.
Jones and her crew may have the bases covered, but watching government over the years has left many of us edgy. Some of the angst is generational and not everybody enjoys the ritual of voting in a polling place, or the feel of being connected to the system. Voting by mail offers convenience, but also risks for perhaps our most cherished freedom — the vote. But then, I worry too much. Really, what could go wrong?
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