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Anchorage’s elections are secure, and you can help make them successful

  • Author: Dennis Wheeler
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 8
  • Published May 8

Dennis Wheeler moves ballot envelopes that have been sorted by precinct and are ready for ballot removal at the MOA Election Center on Election Day, April 2, 2019, during the regular municipal election. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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 put into action your opinions on issues that affect your daily life, including selecting the next mayor, issues concerning the roads you drive on, schools your children attend, parks you visit, and funding for the public safety and first responders on whom you rely. 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 Municipality of Anchorage vote at home/vote by mail system so you know what the municipality is doing to make sure the election is secure.

Starting on April 21, ballot packages were 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 packages so it is using the most current information it can get. Some voters change their residence but forget to update their address with the State of Alaska Division of Elections, which can sometimes mean a ballot is mailed to a place where the voter no longer lives. For this reason, we have additional security measures in place in case someone other than the voter tries to vote this package. And, by the way, it is a crime to vote someone else’s ballot.

Qualified voters who did not receive a mailed ballot can contact the municipality’s Voter Hotline at (907) 243-VOTE (8683) for options to vote or visit an Anchorage Vote Center to cast a ballot. Information about hours, locations and other features of voting by mail are available at www.muni.org/elections.

If you haven’t already voted, in the ballot package mailing, you will receive a ballot, voter instructions, a secrecy sleeve and a return envelope. Once you mark your choices on the ballot, you place the ballot into the provided secrecy sleeve. You then put the secrecy sleeve into the provided ballot return envelope and sign the declaration on the outside of the return envelope. Signing the declaration is an important component of the security and integrity of our elections because your signature will be reviewed and verified at the Election Center by trained signature examiners. Your ballot cannot be counted unless your signature can be verified. Do not combine your ballot return with anyone else’s, and be sure to only use the return envelope with your name on it.

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. Eighteen secure drop boxes will be placed across the Municipality of Anchorage, including one in Eagle River and one in Girdwood. Ninety-six 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 once daily by election officials working in teams of two. Most of the drop boxes are on government property and within visibility of security cameras. You can also bring your ballot return envelope to a vote center. The locations of drop boxes and vote centers can be found atwww.muni.org/elections/dropbox.

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 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 your reference signatures in the state’s file, through a two-stage process.

If at any stage in this envelope review 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, then your ballot return 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 you can attend.

Once your signature is verified, the ballot return envelope is opened, the ballot is removed from the return envelope, and then removed from secrecy sleeve. This process is done in a way that hides your identity from the election officials who separate out the ballots from the envelopes — just as it has always been done for 40 years with absentee by mail voting.

Both the system that handles the ballot return envelopes and the system that counts the ballots are systems that 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 protected by alarms, security cameras, cipher locks and other controls to protect the ballots, including having on-site security personnel during ballot processing. While it is secure, the municipality also wants you to see the process for yourself. Subject to safety protocols due to COVID-19, the Election Center is open for tours, by reservation, and online tours are available on the website at www.muni.org/elections.

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, other high-risk personal effects, or cameras or other digital devices in the processing areas of the Election Center. Election officials commit to their oath of office, sign confidentiality agreements, 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 of such detail as to expose confidential information.

Ballots are usually scanned starting seven days before the election, but results are not tabulated or counted until after 8 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 — site, software or hardware — the paper ballots are preserved for at least 30 days from the date of certification so as to be available for any recount or legal challenge.

The municipality has successfully conducted five elections using vote at home/vote by mail. I hope you will vote in No. 6 on May 11.

Dennis Wheeler is a project manager for Resource Data, Inc. He is a former municipal attorney and current Municipality of Anchorage Elections Project Manager.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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