Opinions

Senate Bill 39 would set Alaska voting back decades

Alaska is an exceptional place. Yes, there’s the well-known superlatives: the continent’s largest mountain, the only state to border two oceans, one of the world’s largest air cargo hubs and the best salmon on Earth. However, less appreciated are our elections. We are one of the few states whose residents have the rights of the referendum, the ballot initiative and the recall. We can get around a recalcitrant Legislature and make our situation better, for instance, as when we overwhelmingly voted for automatic Permanent Fund dividend voter registration in 2018. And for all the funding woes of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, they enforce the strictest campaign finance disclosure requirements of any state. The results speak for themselves: We have some of the most secure, freest, fairest and most transparent electoral systems in the country.

But that could all change.

Senate Bill 39, introduced by Sen. Mike Shower (R-Wasilla), would degrade Alaska’s electoral system to the condition it was in when Elizabeth Peratrovich became a civil rights icon and Alaska hero fighting it. SB 39 would make it far harder to register to vote, obtain an absentee ballot and even steal power from local governments to improve their own voting systems – local governments that, it should be noted, subsidize state elections by providing critical staff and logistical support for free. Successful all-mail elections would be banned only to be replaced by far more cumbersome and expensive state templates (a model that nearly collapsed in the face of the pandemic because poll workers tend to be senior citizens).

To add insult to injury, Shower’s bill would override that very same PFD ballot initiative. It’s clear the sponsor thinks Alaskans are too inept and ignorant to participate in a democracy as, in his role as chair of the Senate committee overseeing the bill, Sen. Shower prevented public comment during hearings. This comes on top of the Dunleavy administration’s proposal to close (fully self-supporting) Division of Motor Vehicles locations in smaller, mainly Interior and coastal, Alaska communities. These locations also provide critical voter registration services.

Alaska faces enough crises right now. We do not need the distasteful distraction of SB 39. We especially do not need a trip to the bad old days when Alaska was sanctioned by the Voting Rights Act. We cannot accept politicians who attempt to strip us as Alaskans of our constitutional rights to make our own choices and to hold our elected officials accountable at every corner. SB 39 should be withdrawn or killed in committee. Call your legislators and make sure they do the right thing and defeat this insult.

Celeste Hodge Growden serves as President and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus. She lives in Anchorage.

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