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Anchorage election goes into social-distancing mode

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Municipality of Anchorage mail-in ballots for spring 2020 election. (Anne Raup / ADN)

The April 7 election is moving forward, and ballots were sent out Tuesday.

But as “social distancing” becomes cemented in the American vernacular in response to the coronavirus, Anchorage politicians seeking seats on the Assembly are finding it wise to separate themselves physically from voters.

“Personally, I have just pulled back,” said Assemblywoman Austin Quinn-Davidson, who’s seeking reelection to her West Anchorage seat.

Quinn-Davidson said the pressing city issues of three weeks ago have been overshadowed by the coronavirus, of which there were 12 confirmed cases in Alaska on Thursday night.

Because of federal guidelines dissuading gatherings of 10 or more people, political rallies and in-person fundraisers for Anchorage Assembly candidates have ceased. Quinn-Davidson said she stopped passing out campaign literature recently after a neighbor suggested it.

"I don’t know that people want to hear from campaigns right now,” she said.

The top fundraisers in competitive races said they have slowed campaigning, either by default as events were canceled, or because constituents are less worried about the issues they were passionate about a month ago.

“Top of mind is the coronavirus, and top of mind is ‘my hours just got reduced significantly’ or ‘I just got laid off,’” said Assemblyman Felix Rivera, who’s defending his Midtown seat.

His challenger, Christine Hill, is still campaigning, but her main focus now is helping the community, she said. She wants to find ways to help small businesses reeling from orders by the mayor and governor to restrict bars and restaurants.

“Certainly I want to be elected, but more importantly I want to hear what the people and residents of Anchorage think,” she said.

At first, she was “full speed ahead” on her campaign, and to date has raised more than $35,000. But recently, she canceled fundraisers.

“Yeah, I’m not full speed ahead," she said. "I am more focused on helping people now in whatever way I can, and I want to know what their concerns are, for if or when I’m elected.”

Rivera has also changed his fundraising model, from in-person to virtual. On Wednesday night, he and the other Assembly incumbents — Chris Constant, Pete Petersen, Quinn-Davidson and Suzanne LaFrance — had a fundraiser planned at Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s home.

Together, they hoped to raise $10,000. Then they moved to a virtual fundraiser on Facebook and cut the goal in half. But at 5 p.m., they had raised $6,500, and he estimated they would finish the night with $8,000.

“We made almost the same amount we would have for an in-person event," he said.

Rivera has also moved in-person coffee meetings to town hall-style events on Facebook Live. Overall, he’s “slowed down tremendously,” he said.

He’s reconsidering dropping campaign material on people’s doorsteps, because much is not known about how long the virus can live on surfaces. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says the virus “may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials.”)

LaFrance said she had been wearing gloves while compiling campaign material, but recently decided not to drop campaign material on doorsteps at all.

"Definitely safety is the most important thing right now, so we have switched to virtual events and phone banks,” LaFrance said.

She said engagement from the public is lower than when she ran three years ago, and at times it can be hard to focus on campaigning rather than the virus. However, she has seen an increase in volunteers over the past week.

“People are really trying to work together and figure out how to do things safely without putting anyone at risk,” she said.

MoHagani Magnetek, who is challenging Quinn-Davidson, said she stopped taking campaign contributions three weeks ago.

“It’s totally changed our campaign strategy," she said. "The issues that were important three weeks ago are not the issues that are important now.”

She largely wasn’t campaigning at big events, so social distancing hasn’t changed her approach much, she said.

Rick Castillo, who is challenging LaFrance in South Anchorage, said the change in campaigning has hit challengers especially hard. The attention has been pulled from the race, so someone without as much name recognition has to work harder, he said.

He canceled the larger campaign events and has focused on social media, online advertising and phone solicitations. To get your name out there costs money, he said, and right now Anchorage residents are worried about losing their jobs and a global economic collapse.

“It’s almost insensitive to ask for these resources when people are faced with these fiscal dilemmas," he said.

City considering measures to protect election workers and voters

While the Anchorage municipal election is still going forward, changes are being considered to protect voters and election workers, according to City Clerk Barbara Jones.

Ballots were mailed on Tuesday and must be returned by April 7.

Jones is making adjustments to deal with the new reality.

At a Wednesday work session, the Anchorage Assembly discussed expanding the city clerk’s power to allow her to shut down ballot drop sites as a way to limit large groups of people.

Jones said that already, 20 of her 60 election workers have informed her they aren’t going to work the election out of fear of contracting the virus. Others have opted to wear gloves while working.

Jones said it’s not clear how effective gloves are to prevent spread of the virus, but the office is using them.

Before workers touch the envelopes, Jones said, there is also discussion of holding all collected ballots in a locked cage for 24 hours before processing them.

“We are constantly evaluating every single day," she said.

Any changes to the clerk’s authority is set to be before the Assembly during an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Friday. The Assembly is encouraging testimony via phone.

People giving in-person testimony could have to wait in another room prior to speaking so that fewer than 10 people will be in the room at any given time.

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