Anchorage is about to become the first major city in Alaska to run an election by mail, turning "Election Day" into "Election Month" for candidates and campaign strategists.
On March 13, elections officials will mail ballots to every registered voter in Anchorage. Voters then have until April 3, Election Day, to mail back or drop off the ballot. Ballots feed into a scanner and two elections officials check signatures against a database to verify identities.
Pitched as a secure way to boost turnout while reducing election costs, a vote-by-mail election largely replaces the dozens of polling places that fan out into neighborhood schools, churches and senior centers, staffed by poll workers. Voters can still mark ballots in a voting booth at a few spots around town, like Anchorage City Hall or the Loussac Library. But the city will no longer hold a singular Election Day where most people go out and vote.
As well as a change in the experience of being a voter, the shift also represents a fundamental change in how Anchorage elections are managed — and significantly shakes up some of the political calculus behind campaigns.
Political strategists say Anchorage voters should expect heavy campaigning three weeks out, not just in the days right before Election Day. The 2018 election includes a mayoral race, three open Anchorage School Board seats and several ballot initiatives, though no Anchorage Assembly races.
"This is a whole game-changer," said Ivan Moore, an Anchorage political consultant who has done polling for the incumbent mayor, Ethan Berkowitz. "It just whacks it and moves that final week back three weeks."
In past decades, campaigns saved up cash and then blitzed voters in the last few days before Election Day. The rising popularity of early voting in Anchorage and nationally has steadily pushed up that advertising timeline — which could translate into a more expensive campaign, or at the very least, more strategy when it comes to spending money.
This spring, Anchorage strategists predict two spikes in activity. First, there will likely be aggressive campaigning when ballots go out, to catch the rush of people who return ballots right away, Moore said. Then, after a relative lull, campaigns will likely spike at the end of the election, to catch procrastinators, Moore said.
As the days go by, campaigns will be able to see the names of who has voted through a daily list provided by the city clerk's office. More sophisticated campaign organizations will then try to contact voters who haven't yet returned a ballot. That means people can be expected to be reminded if they don't return a ballot, by phone, mail or a knock on the door.
This process has been playing out in other states for years. Oregon held its first statewide vote-by-mail election in 1993. Washington and Colorado also moved to statewide by-mail elections in the past decade.
In Colorado's 2014 statewide election, turnout rose, though it wasn't clear if the boost was directly because of mail ballots. Researchers found that nearly two-thirds of voters returned ballots by hand instead of in the mail, and election costs fell.
Colorado political strategists adapted by firing up campaigns earlier.
"The way we view it, the election starts on the day the ballots are mailed out," said Ryan Winger, who works on campaigns for a Colorado-based Republican political consulting firm, the Magellan Group.
Tracking who has returned a ballot is a key part of the campaign strategy, Winger said. Once that person votes, he said, the campaign can make sure it's spending its money to target others who haven't. He said that between 30 and 40 percent of Colorado voters return a ballot in the final days of the race.
So far, the mail-ballot shift hasn't played to a single party's advantage, Winger said. Turnout rose across the board — Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. He said the higher numbers make sense, because voters don't have to drive to a polling place.
"It's asking them to fill out a ballot that's sitting on their dining room table," Winger said.
Winger said the elections had yielded no serious questions about voter fraud or contested ballots.
In 2013, Anchorage began seriously exploring the shift to mail ballots. The city hired a former city attorney, Dennis Wheeler, who now works for Resource Data Inc., to oversee the shift.
Some private and nonprofit organizations have been running by-mail board elections for years. The "paradigm," said Anchorage political consultant Marc Hellenthal, is the Chugach Electric Association.
"They've been doing the vote-by-mail forever," he said.
Rebecca Logan, so far Berkowitz's main challenger for mayor, won a spot on the Chugach Electric board in 2008. That was a much smaller number of voters, between 15,000 and 20,000 people, Logan said, compared to Anchorage's roughly 212,000. But she said she's less intimidated by the by-mail process because of it.
In that election, campaigning started a few weeks before ballots were mailed out, and intensified as ballots hit mailboxes, Logan said.
"For those first two weeks, you were pretty intensely campaigning," Logan said.
The director of operations for the AFL-CIO, Joelle Hall, used to work for a citizen group that campaigned for specific candidates in the Chugach Electric board elections. Besides Chugach Electric, regional and Native corporations hold mail elections, she said.
Hall, a Berkowitz supporter, said people with experience working on vote-by-mail elections have been talking and pooling information.
"Groups are trying to figure out how to be the most efficient possible," Hall said.
Hellenthal, who is working for school board candidate Alisha Hilde, said the format could favor political organizations that can provide candidates with extensive lists of contact information. Less well-heeled candidates may have a tougher time because of the length of the campaign, he said.
He said incumbency, regardless of party affiliation, is favored in that case, because incumbents typically raise more money than challengers.
Berkowitz, in a brief interview, said he didn't expect big, flashy attack ads right at the end of voting, often a standard campaign tactic. He said he expected a vote-by-mail election to calm the rhetoric and make the campaign more substantive.
In Colorado, at least, Winger said he hasn't noticed a marked change in the tone of campaigns.
"It was just kind of business as usual," Winger said.
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Some things to know about vote-by-mail in Anchorage:
When will I get my ballot?
Ballots will be mailed March 13, three weeks before Election Day. They'll come as first-class mail, which typically takes between one and three days to arrive.
When do I need to return the ballot by?
Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day or placed in one of 12 secure drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Voters can also return ballots to one of four accessible vote centers: The city's election headquarters in Ship Creek; City Hall; the Loussac Library and Eagle River Town Center.
The vote centers will be open March 26 to April 2 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and on Election Day, April 3, between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Where are the drop boxes located?
— Anchorage School District Education Center, 5530 E. Northern Lights Blvd.
— Bartlett High School, 1101 Golden Bear Drive
— Clark Middle School, 150 Bragaw St.
— Dimond High School, 2909 W. 88th Ave.
— Fairview Community Recreation Center, 1121 E. 10th Ave.
— Loussac Library, 3600 Denali St.
— Service High School, 5577 Abbott Road
— Spenard Community Recreation Center, 2020 W. 48th Ave.
— South Anchorage High School, 13400 Elmore Road
— UAA Alaska Airlines Center, 3550 Providence Drive
— Eagle River Town Center, 12001 Business Blvd.
— Girdwood Community Center, 250 Egloff Drive
Do I have to pay for postage?
A first-class stamp will be needed to mail a ballot back. But you can also go to a drop box or an accessible vote center. Ninety percent of Anchorage residents will live within 5 miles of a drop box, which open March 13 — the day ballots go out, elections officials have said.
What's the city doing to prevent voter fraud?
The signature on a mailed-in envelope will be scanned and compared with signatures in a database from prior elections by two different elections officials.
What is the last day to register to vote and change my address?
The last day to register or update voter information is March 4.
What if I live outside Anchorage during the winter?
Ballots will be mailed to the voter's registered mailing address. Election mail can't be forwarded. Absentee ballot applications are available on the Anchorage city clerk's website.
What if I just moved here and have never voted before?
When you register to vote in Alaska, the city will use the address and signature from your registration form.
I never check my mail, I lost or damaged my ballot, I never got a ballot, or I just don't feel like voting by mail. Can I still vote in a voting booth on Election Day?
Yes. The city's accessible vote centers — at the Ship Creek election center, the Loussac Library, City Hall and Eagle River Town Center — will have voting booths, where you can request a replacement ballot or bring an unmarked ballot package to mark in a voting booth.
How will I be contacted if there's a problem with my ballot?
Elections officials say a letter will be sent in the mail as soon as a problem comes up. Voters will also be given the option to write a phone number on the envelope containing the ballot.
I voted. Then the candidate I voted for did something I didn't like. Can I change my vote before Election Day?
You can't change your vote. The city clerk's office counts the first ballot it receives.
How can I see the new scanners and voting equipment in action ahead of time?
The city clerk's office has announced several open houses at the city's election headquarters, located at 619 E. Ship Creek Avenue, Suite 100, Door D. The first happened earlier this month.
Here are the dates for the next two open houses:
— Feb. 15, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
— March 1, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.