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Buoyed by Outside cash, initiative backers make final push to link Alaska voter registration with PFD

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: October 22, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2016

A citizen initiative that would automatically register nonvoters who file for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend has drawn money and endorsements from across the political spectrum, with support from a conservation group and an oil company, unions and the state's two Republican U.S. senators.

But as the initiative ramps up a statewide advertising blitz backed by big Outside money, it's also facing growing skepticism — especially from conservatives, who claim the measure is written to boost the fortunes of left-leaning candidates.

Democrats typically get more support among low-income residents, the elderly, minorities and students, the same people represented disproportionately among the unregistered. But Republicans argue that making it too easy to vote enables fraud.

Supporters of the Permanent Fund initiative describe it as a nonpartisan effort to promote civic participation, automatically registering tens of thousands of Alaskans who have applied for dividends. That would make it less likely for people to get turned away at the polls or miss out on voting because they didn't sign up before the registration deadline, which comes a month before the election — one of the earliest in the country.

"That happened to eight guys on my soccer team," said John-Henry Heckendorn, the Anchorage political consultant who's running the initiative campaign. "I think there are multi-cycle consequences when someone shows up and is told, 'Sorry, you can't participate.' It just leaves a bad taste in people's mouth."

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, endorsed the effort last month, while former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who lost to Sullivan in 2014, is also a backer.

Anchorage political consultant John-Henry Heckendorn, right, is leading an initiative campaign to register Alaskans to vote using their Permanent Fund dividend applications. He talks with Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, another backer of the initiative on election night, April 5, 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Oil company BP and the Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union have each chipped in $10,000 to support the initiative. Other financial backers include an array of unions, Alaska Native corporations and organizations, and Alaska Conservation Voters.

The initiative campaign is running ads that highlight the unusual alliance between groups and individuals that more often take opposite sides in Alaska's political fights.

"In an election season where it seems like no one agrees on anything, everyone agrees on one thing," the narrator says, reading off a list of the initiative's supporters.

The measure is relatively straightforward. It would use data from Alaskans' dividend applications to automatically register them to vote, or update their existing registration if their addresses don't match — a step up from the optional registration offered to people at the DMV.

If the initiative succeeds, the campaign says it would boost representation for groups that sometimes have trouble keeping registrations active or up-to-date because of where they live or how often they move, like Alaska Natives, younger residents, oil company employees and members of the military.

In 2014, 9,700 people had their ballots only "partially" counted — meaning that their votes in statewide races were accepted but votes for local candidates were rejected because the ballot was cast in the wrong district.

Supporters say the demographics of the underrepresented groups cut across party lines, even if many early backers of the initiative were affiliated with union or Democratic politics, like Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, both Democrats.

"We really didn't look at it from what pockets it would give us or gain us," said Kim Reitmeier, the campaign's chair and head of an organization of Alaska Native corporate leaders, the ANCSA Regional Association. "The reason we're engaged with it is because we're nonpartisan."

The Alaska Republican Party doesn't have an official position on the initiative. But some GOP leaders and conservatives have criticized and resisted proposals that would make it easier for people to register, arguing that Alaskans shouldn't be able to vote unless they've made an effort to register themselves.

"There are people out there who don't know diddly squat about our country," said Peter Goldberg, the former Alaska Republican Party chair who's now a member of the Republican National Committee. "And I'm not comfortable with people that are total ignorant about our system voting." Goldberg was quoted Tuesday by the online journal Politico as agreeing with Donald Trump's suggestion that the 2016 election will be rigged.

Republican skepticism about the integrity of the election process dovetails with other GOP efforts to add new layers of security to voting, instead of removing barriers. National and local Republicans have promoted voter ID laws, for example, claiming they're needed to reduce voter fraud, though opponents argue that such restrictions are unnecessary and suppress the votes of the poor, minorities, the elderly and students — voters who traditionally are more likely to vote for Democrats.

In the state Legislature, Senate Bill 93, which would have allowed people to register to vote on Election Day, died this year in the Senate State Affairs Committee chaired by Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who never scheduled a hearing on the legislation.

"I don't even remember it," Stoltze said in a phone interview. He added, "I think it's pretty easy to vote in the first place."

Attacks on the Permanent Fund registration initiative have escalated in the past week, with additional criticism of its cost, which the state estimates at $1 million initially and about $300,000 annually — though backers say those figures don't include potential savings from reduced paperwork for voter registrars.

The initiative's supporters say they have polling data — which they won't release publicly — that shows their idea has public support as long as people understand what the measure does and doesn't do. But they're worried that campaign-season rhetoric about Gov. Bill Walker's partial veto of Alaskans' Permanent Fund dividends could make voters confused or suspicious.

Those fears spurred the initiative's backers to raise more than $850,000 in the last two months to pay for its ad campaign. The bulk of that money — about $550,000 — came from the New Venture Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that supports global development and health projects, conservation and climate change initiatives, and education programs.

The fund has a project that supports efforts to increase voter registration and agreed to support the Alaska campaign when it was asked, said Lee Bodner, New Venture Fund's president.

"We think it is generally good for democracy when more people can vote — that's why we're doing it," Bodner said in a phone interview from Washington.

The foundation, which reported $180 million in revenue in 2014, doesn't disclose its donors, who typically give money to support a particular initiative, Bodner said. Tax filings show New Venture Fund received more than $25 million in 2014 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for education and global health programs.

The initiative campaign has also received $250,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based National Education Association, the country's largest labor union. Most Alaska teachers are represented by NEA affiliates.

Heckendorn said the initiative campaign went looking for the Outside money after relying primarily on local cash for the early stages of its campaign.

"There's a pretty limited herd of caribou in Alaska that donates to political campaigns and everyone is shooting at them — and at some point you run out of them," Heckendorn said. "This was a local effort that started with zero national involvement."

If the initiative passes, supporters say that tens of thousands of voters could be newly registered — Heckendorn estimates 35,000. But the state hasn't offered its own official projection, and its own data isn't helpful in developing one, in part because Alaska's current voter lists are inflated with people who may have moved out of state or to a different Alaska address, according to Carol Thompson, the elections division's absentee and petition coordinator.

There are actually more registered voters on the state's lists — 528,560 — than the 495,910 people over 18 years old who applied for a Permanent Fund dividend last year. But the last time the state cross-referenced its registration data with PFD data, several years ago, it found about 75,000 dividend applicants who weren't registered, Thompson said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, meanwhile, has estimated that there are nearly 200,000 eligible but unregistered voters in Alaska, based on motor vehicle records.

Reitmeier, who for years has worked to register Alaska Native voters through the "Get Out the Native Vote" campaign, said the initiative could free up time and effort for the promotion of deeper involvement in the democratic process.

"We put so much time and resources into voter registration," she said. "Now we can turn that energy towards voter engagement — it really changes our directive."

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