In what is apparently a first for Alaska, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly passed an ordinance this week that will prohibit the use of voting tabulation machines for borough elections, starting next year.
The new Mat-Su ordinance, approved Tuesday night, caps off a months-long effort from a group of residents determined to ban the use of voting machines spurred on by false claims of election fraud. Last month, the Assembly unanimously voted to use a hand-count to verify the results of the Nov. 8 borough election, but voting machines will still be used.
Borough officials determined that it would be a “great risk” to stop using machines and mandate hand-counting for this year’s borough election because there would be inadequate time “to properly prepare for a change of this magnitude,” according to a memo filed with the legislation. Instead, those changes are set to be in place for next November’s municipal election.
The new ordinance will require hand counting of ballots on election night at each of the borough’s 41 precincts, with election workers calling results in, instead of counting taking place at the borough office in Palmer. Some assembly members raised concerns that transporting ballots before they are counted could increase the risk of vote tampering and fraud.
No other boroughs appear to have taken similar steps, according to the Alaska Municipal League and the Mat-Su borough clerk.
The changes will not apply to state or federal elections in the Valley, which are run by the state Division of Elections.
Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who is the top elected official to oversee the state’s elections, wrote an opinion piece for the Daily News in June to dispel “misunderstandings” about fraud and how voting works in Alaska.
“There continues to be misinformation that our Dominion equipment changes votes and reports fraudulent results — this is simply untrue,” he said. “We do not use voting machines — rather, we utilize ballot tabulators that are not connected to the internet and simply count the voted paper ballots.”
Lonnie McKechnie, the Mat-Su borough clerk, issued a similar statement earlier in the year, describing the election integrity protocols in place. Those include only using paper ballots, locking systems on tabulation machines to prevent tampering and an overall election review process by the Canvass Board.
That did not reassure people testifying at Tuesday’s assembly meeting who vehemently opposed voting machines and supported hand counts, with loud applause after each testifier. A common refrain was that the machines cannot be trusted.
Some echoed disproven conspiracy theories that fraud or hacked voting machines cost former President Donald Trump the 2020 election. The Valley has long been a conservative stronghold in Alaska, and 85% of Big Lake voters cast a ballot for Trump two years ago.
Republican legislators in at least six states have introduced legislation to mandate hand-counting of ballots and ban voting machines. Similar debates have been going on at the county level, including in the battleground state of Nevada, where a legal challenge has been filed against a rural county that has moved to start hand-counting mail-in ballots two weeks before Election Day.
The lone vote against Tuesday’s ordinance came from assembly member Stephanie Nowers, who was heckled. Nowers said that “we’re all on the same page” but she didn’t want to “rush” to a vote. Instead, she called for another meeting in February to review how hand-counting had worked to verify this year’s borough election results.
That idea was rejected, but the Assembly is now planning a special meeting Jan. 17 to “clean up” the borough code when it comes to elections. As an example, McKechnie said references would need to be removed to a review board which was in charge of checking voting machines.
The borough had signed an eight-year agreement with the state to lease 46 Dominion voting machines at a cost of $72,257 per year. That will end June 30.
The addition of hand counting this November to verify borough election results results is estimated to cost roughly $7,000, but it’s unclear how much it will cost to solely use hand-counting for an election. The borough is expecting to save money by not leasing voting machines from the state.
McKechnie said she is focused on this year’s borough election, but expects that there will be some added complexities with having hand-counting at precincts, including sending out a fresh set of election workers to replace those who have worked all of Election Day.
“They’re going to be exhausted. They’re going to already have worked probably 16-hour days. So there’ll be some training of the new officials to go out and train them how to count,” McKechnie said.
At a state level, 270 precincts use Dominion voting machines to count votes. Another 131 precincts, mostly in rural areas of the state, hand-count ballots.
Hoping to calm election fraud concerns, Meyer ordered an unprecedented audit of statewide results in 2020 to show that Alaska’s voting machines were counting accurately. The audit had election workers hand-count each of the 361,400 ballots cast and they came up with a total of 24 votes that were different from the results certified by the Division of Elections.