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Alaskans favor ballot measure tying voter registration to PFDs

Alaskans were split on two ballot measures Tuesday, voting in favor of one that would automatically register voters when applying for the Permanent Fund dividend and against another to allow the state to borrow money for student loans.

The first ballot measure, which was passing by a wide margin, automatically registers qualified Alaskans to vote when applying for a Permanent Fund dividend. Supporters noted it could capture tens of thousands of voters who qualify for the dividend and are eligible to vote but have not registered. Individuals could later choose to register for a party or opt out.

With all but 10 precincts reporting statewide early Wednesday, the measure was passing with 64 percent of the vote.

The measure was endorsed by a broad range of interest groups, including Alaska Native organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, oil company BP and Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

Proponents of the measure raised over $1.3 million to pay for the campaign. The biggest backers include the National Education Association, the teachers union, and 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.

No official opposition group formed to oppose the measure. However, it drew criticism from some Republicans who questioned its costs. A state estimate shows implementation could cost up to $1 million in the first year and an additional $300,000 annually.

But supporters contend the measure would actually save the state between $200,000 and $300,000 in reduced paperwork for voter registrars in the Alaska Division of Elections.

Kim Reitmeier, co-chair of the group backing the initiative, said people have also raised concerns about the measure being tied to the dividend. She said news related to the dividend — such as the veto by Gov. Bill Walker that cut dividends in half — has led to some skepticism from voters concerned the measure could affect the annual PFD payout.

"In no way or fashion does this have any effect on your PFD," she said. "All it is is synchronizing the system, adding more safeguards and having our government work smarter."

On Tuesday night, Reitmeier said she was "optimistic and happy" about the outcome of the race. She said she hopes that the bipartisan momentum the campaign built continues in other election reform efforts moving forward.

"It feels like more people are engaged in voting," she said. "Now we've got to figure out how to keep that going."

Suzanne Downing, writer of the conservative Must Read Alaska blog and communications director for the Alaska Republican Party, noted the party took no official stance on the measure. When asked why no formal opposition ever formed, Downing said the party "didn't have the bandwidth" to organize given the other more contentious races.

"You have to pick and choose your battles," she said in a phone interview Monday.

The second ballot measure would have amended the Alaska Constitution to allow the state to issue general obligation bonds for postsecondary student loans from the state.

That means the Alaska Student Loan Corp., which distributes postsecondary loans for college and trade school to Alaskans, could potentially sell general obligation bonds using the state's credit. Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon said that could mean lower interest rates for student borrowers.

MacKinnon's measure had broad support in the Alaska House and Senate with only Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, voting against the resolution.

MacKinnon said in a phone interview Monday that approving the measure would mean no additional burden to taxpayers in Alaska as borrowers would still be required to pay back their loans. It secures a different line of financing for the student loan corporation.

But there was little to no outreach about the ballot measure. It was failing 56 percent to 44 percent early Wednesday with 98 percent of the precincts statewide reporting.

In an interview Tuesday night, MacKinnon said she understands people are concerned about debt at both the local and national levels and thinks that concern and the lack of publicity for the measure factored in to why Alaskans appeared to vote it down.

A loan through the corporation is currently set at fixed rate interest of 6.25 percent, though that fluctuates from year to year according to Stephanie Butler, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. Butler said the measure could reduce the interest rate by a percent and increase the number of students who would have access to the loans by lowering credit requirements of borrowers.

Butler said the rate of loan defaults for Alaskans is low. Over the last 30 years Alaska borrowers have paid back over $1.1 billion in loans, she said.

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