JUNEAU — A Wasilla senator who proposed new restrictions on voting by mail in Alaska said this week that he is not opposed to voting by mail, does not support all of the things he has proposed and expects some sections of his bill to be removed.
Multiple senators said it is quite unusual for a lawmaker to propose something they do not agree with, but Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said he doesn’t operate like most senators.
“I’m putting everything out there to discuss it. If we ultimately find that nobody’s interested in it, or it’s not going to work or whatever, then we’ll just strip it out,” he said.
“I’m neutral (on voting by mail). ... I’m not for it, I’m not against it, as long as it is secure,” he said.
Why does his bill include a section that repeals the state’s ability to hold some elections by mail?
“There are people that don’t want mail-in voting at all. OK, let’s put it on the table and discuss it,” he said.
Shower’s proposal, Senate Bill 39, took its first step toward a possible Senate vote on Thursday when it was heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee, which Shower leads.
If it passes the Senate, House and is signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the bill as currently written would impose new restrictions on absentee voting, roll back part of a 2016 voter initiative and eliminate the state’s ability to hold some elections by mail.
Shower said his intent, rather than the text of the bill, matters more because the legislation is at such an early state and can be amended.
Since last week, Shower’s proposal has received a hostile reception. The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said on social media, “Let us clear things up. You DO NOT establish fair elections by making it HARDER for people to vote.”
“It’s going to be billed as voting reform, but really, it’s voter suppression. There are going to be more people that are unable to vote,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, on Wednesday.
During Thursday’s hearing, he and Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, asked for examples of problems that could justify the proposal.
“We’re trying to solve a problem (and) I don’t even know we have a problem at this point,” Kawasaki said.
As written, the bill would repeal the laws used by the state to hold elections for rural school board seats. In these elections, all voting is conducted by mail and there are no — or very few — in-person voting locations.
Some Alaska cities and boroughs also run their local elections in this way, and the bill would require most of them to revise their plans. Instead of automatically sending blank ballots to all voters, those cities and boroughs could only send ballots to voters who request them.
Legislative observers, including the Alaska Municipal League, initially believed this provision would apply to Anchorage and Juneau. Upon further analysis, they concluded that those cities — and Alaska’s other “home rule” jurisdictions, such as Cordova and Palmer — would not be affected by the bill as it’s currently written.
Shower said the goal of the municipal election section “is to have a secure election protocol, so that we can guarantee the security and integrity of mail and voting.”
Why isn’t that in the bill?
“Because we just haven’t got that far yet,” Shower said.
In another part of the bill, Alaskans would no longer be automatically registered to vote when they apply for the annual Permanent Fund dividend. Instead, they will be asked if they want to register, creating an “opt-in” program instead of an “opt-out” one. This partially repeals a 2016 ballot initiative approved by two-thirds of voters.
Alaska’s statewide elections do not operate principally by mail, but Alaskans can vote absentee through the mail. Sections of the bill would limit who can mail or turn in an absentee ballot on behalf of another voter.
Shower and aide Terrence Shanigan said the goal is to ensure a firm chain of custody with absentee ballots.
Kawasaki said the way the bill implements that goal is a problem: If the bill passes, he could take his mother’s absentee ballot to a mailbox, but if he took two parents’ ballots to a mailbox, he’d be committing a crime.
Other sections require faster counting of absentee ballots, require the Division of Elections to track absentee ballots through the mail and require officials to preserve all ballots for two years after an election. Another part of the bill requires the division to set up a telephone hotline allowing voters to report problems.