Early voting is open, and a record number of Alaskans have signed up to vote by mail in this year’s statewide primary election on Aug. 18.
The election will decide the Republican and Democratic nominees for the Alaska Legislature, U.S. House and one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Alaska is operating under a variety of public health restrictions due to the coronavirus emergency. Here’s what’s changed and the polls and what hasn’t:
The state is encouraging — but not requiring — Alaskans to vote by mail.
In Alaska, anyone can sign up to vote absentee by mail for any reason, but applications must be submitted by Aug. 8. This year, the state is offering a new online application — you’ll need your driver’s license. It also mailed paper sign-up forms to all registered voters at least 65 years old. (There are 97,281 of those.)
The state’s Republican and Democratic parties have also mailed paper forms to registered party members. If you receive multiple forms, you only need to fill out one.
Disability advocates, pro-Native groups and others have sued the state in an attempt to force it to send paper forms to all registered voters, but a decision in that case won’t be made until after the primary election.
If you want to vote by mail in the primary, you need to act before Saturday.
Gail Fenumiai, the director of the Division of Elections, said her office is sending out ballots “as quickly as possible” after receiving requests. If a ballot hasn’t arrived by election day, you’ll need to go to the polls in person.
The U.S. Postal Service advises mailing ballots a week in advance.
When you receive a ballot in the mail, fill it out and return it as soon as possible, the Division of Elections and the U.S. Postal Service say. You’ll need a postage stamp and a witness — someone to countersign your ballot and confirm you actually voted it.
Ballots must be postmarked by election day. If they arrive at the Division of Elections on or before Aug. 28, they will be counted.
In early July, the new U.S. postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, announced in a memo that the postal service would be changing its procedures in a way that could delay delivery.
“Now, the postal service is recommending that if you’re sending your ballots back, to put it in the box a week ahead of time,” said David Rupert, manager of the postal service’s strategic communications in the Western United States.
James Patarini, president of Alaska’s postal workers union, said that to his knowledge, there haven’t been any vote-by-mail issues this century.
Early voting centers are open.
In addition to encouraging voters to cast ballots by mail, the state is boosting early voting. Ahead of the primary, and again before the general election, voters can make their picks at one of the many early-voting sites across the state. In Anchorage, ballots from all of the state’s election districts are available at the Midtown Mall and Anchorage City Hall. On election day, a polling station will also be set up at the airport.
An early shortfall of election workers has been mostly fixed.
In June, Fenumiai and other state officials warned that Alaska faced a shortage of poll workers because of the coronavirus pandemic. Poll workers are generally older, and many had said they didn’t want to work the polls because of the health danger.
After that, the state embarked on an intensive recruiting campaign. It is allowing state employees to work at polling places on Aug. 18 in place of their usual jobs. It has also created a fundraising campaign that diverts poll worker pay to nonprofits that volunteer to staff a polling station.
Late last week, Fenumiai said “things are looking pretty good” when it comes to polling place staffing.
“We are still actively recruiting and are not anticipating having to close any polling locations,” she said Thursday.
A significant number of polling places have changed.
While no polling place is slated to close for lack of staff, some polling places have changed locations because of public health concerns. Voting booths will move out of hospitals and senior centers, places particularly at risk of viral spread. Instead, more schools will host polling stations, since students won’t be around. Affected voters should receive a postcard letting them know of the new location.
Masks are required for workers, encouraged for voters.
To reduce the chances that polling places spread coronavirus, poll workers will be required to wear masks or face shields. Voting booths will be separated by 6 feet to the extent that’s possible, and poll workers will sanitize the area throughout the day. Those waiting in line will be asked to stand apart from each other. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be available.
As for wearing masks in polling places, “the division’s policy is to provide masks to anyone who does not have a mask. The division will not deny someone the right to vote if they choose not to wear one,” Fenumiai said.
Results may not be known for a week or more.
With so many Alaskans voting by mail, the results may not be known for a few days.
In 2016, nearly 89,000 Alaskans voted in the state primary. By the end of this week, nearly half that many will have signed up to vote absentee by mail this year.
Absentee votes won’t be counted until after the Aug. 18 election day, which means the results from election night could change significantly.
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