Alaska Legislature

Alaska’s governor and lieutenant governor begin a new push to change state elections laws

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In late December, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer and Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced they will pursue a sweeping reform of Alaska’s election laws during the first 30 days of the legislative session, which began Tuesday.

The push arrives at a tumultuous time in state and national politics. Since the 2020 presidential campaign, former President Donald Trump has falsely claimed that fraud turned the national election results against him. Despite numerous state-level investigations and numerous lawsuits, no widespread fraud has been found.

Last year, Republican officials in multiple states cited concerns about election fraud as they passed laws allowing them to overturn local election results and restrict voting methods principally used by Democratic voters.

Democratic politicians pushed back against those attempts and some have attempted to advance legislation expanding voting access.

Here in Alaska, Republican and Democratic lawmakers proposed 16 bills or resolutions that would make significant changes to Alaska’s election system last year. None passed. More are being introduced this year.

Why are voting rights and elections an issue now?

In 2020, there was a huge change in voting habits nationally and within Alaska, as the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged in-person visits to the polls. Thirty-one percent of Alaska’s participating voters cast ballots by mail, fax or online delivery.

In 2016, it was 11%, and in 2012, that figure was 12%.

Those numbers include only what’s known as “absentee by mail.” Formally, and unlike Anchorage, Alaska doesn’t have a “voting by mail” system because ballots aren’t automatically sent to every registered voter.

But even without those automatic mailouts, there’s been a huge change in habits. If you add early votes (those cast in polling stations open before Election Day), absentee by mail votes, and absentee ballots deposited in dropboxes, more than half of Alaska’s votes in the 2020 election came from something other than a traditional Election Day polling place.

It’s the first time that’s ever happened.

Democrats in particular were much more likely to vote before Election Day. In 2020, Alaska’s absentee voters favored Democratic candidate Joe Biden by a 58-39 margin, a difference of 19 percentage points. Election Day voters favored Trump by a 66-30 margin, a difference of 36 points. The combined difference was a gap of 54 points, when rounding is taken into effect.

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In the 2016 presidential election, the gap was 2 points. In a survey of five Fairbanks districts in 2012, the difference was about half a percentage point.

During the 2020 presidential campaign and afterward, Trump denounced voting by mail, a key component of most absentee voting. (Trump himself voted absentee by mail.)

In Alaska, most absentee ballots are counted after Election Day. These late-counted votes did not change the result of the presidential election, but they did change the results of some legislative races and the result of the statewide Ballot Measure 2.

Some Republicans were skeptical of those changes to results, and Meyer ordered a hand count of the result to verify the outcome. That hand count changed the result by only 24 votes out of 361,400 cast.

[Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer will not run for reelection in 2022]

After the election, the Division of Elections disclosed that 113,000 Alaskans had personal information exposed during a preelection cyberattack on the state’s online voter registration database.

Some Republican lawmakers speculated that the leaked information could have been used to commit election fraud. They’ve held legislative hearings and have called for a comprehensive audit, similar to the one ordered by the Arizona Senate in that state.

There has been no evidence of fraud sufficient to change any results here. Since the 2020 election, the state has filed election-fraud charges against one person, a Copper Center man accused of signing absentee ballots with an anti-gay epithet on multiple occasions. Dunleavy said in early January that three cases are under investigation by state troopers, but the Alaska Department of Public Safety declined to confirm that claim and the governor’s office did not answer questions about it.

A national poll published this month by Quinnipiac University found that 71% of Republicans believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Among all Americans, only 34% believe that.

Speaking in December, Dunleavy said he wants to make Alaska’s elections “even more credible,” and a member of the governor’s staff said some elements of the administration’s elections bill were added to address public complaints about national elections practices that don’t occur in Alaska.

What are the efforts in Alaska?

The administration’s legislation was released Jan. 18. Some key elements:

• A signature on an absentee ballot will be matched to one on file with the state. If the signatures don’t match, a voter will have two days to verify their ballot. If it’s not verified, their vote is rejected. Voters whose mailed ballots arrive after Election Day may not have an opportunity to verify their ballot if it is flagged for problems.

• Alaska has a program where someone who applies for the Permanent Fund dividend is automatically registered to vote or has their voter information updated. The bill would eliminate the automatic registration and require a voter to opt in.

• Alaska would set up an online ballot-tracking system that allows voters to see whether their absentee ballot has been received and counted.

• The state would more stringently examine and audit its list of registered voters.

• Rather than applying to vote absentee for just a single year, voters would be able to stay an absentee voter for up to four years.

• The state would no longer be able to accept private donations to fund the elections system.

• Third-party groups would no longer be able to help voters deliver a completed absentee ballot to a dropbox or mailbox, a process sometimes called “ballot harvesting.”

• There would be new definitions for election fraud and illegal activity, and new procedures for election observers.

• There would be a toll-free number where voters could report suspicious activity at the polls.

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Many of these pieces have previously appeared in legislation introduced by Republican and Democratic legislators in prior years, and those bills could still advance.

In addition, the governor’s budget proposes spending on cybersecurity efforts and voter-education campaigns that are not addressed in the new legislation.

Why do these changes matter?

If future voting patterns repeat those of the 2020 election, changes to absentee voting will disproportionately affect Democratic voters.

If 2020 was an anomaly rather than a long-term change, the disproportionate effects disappear. Before 2020, Republican and Democratic participation was similar, and in some years, Republicans voted absentee at higher rates than Democrats.

In Anchorage’s mayoral runoff election last May, 1.2% of the 87,002 ballots cast by mail were rejected because the signatures on the ballots didn’t match signatures on file with the Alaska Division of Elections. That was the proportion rejected even after voters were notified of a problem and given several days to verify their signatures.

If the same proportion was applied to the state’s 2020 absentee ballot program, 1,333 ballots would have been thrown out.

Anchorage allows more time to correct signatures than is proposed by the administration, meaning that estimate is almost certainly low. An official with the governor’s administration said the addition of free absentee ballot postage and long-term registration may compensate for some of the discarded votes by encouraging additional voting.

Many of Alaska’s local legislative races are decided by small margins. In 2018, Bart LeBon defeated Kathryn Dodge by one vote. In 2020, Liz Snyder defeated Lance Pruitt for an Anchorage state House race by 11 votes. That result ended up deciding control of the state House.

The governor’s legislation calls for signature verification to be approved and in place before the 2022 election. Two years ago, state attorneys argued that last-minute changes “could create confusion and distrust in the division (of elections) and the election result.”

An official with the governor’s office said it isn’t appropriate to compare that statement, which came in fall 2020, with legislation that could be passed this spring.

It’s difficult to determine the effect of the state’s PFD-linked automatic voter registration program. Two years ago, 13,608 new voters were registered under the program, and 4,299 of those people voted in the 2020 election.

It’s not clear how many of those people would have been registered under an opt-in program, whether they would have been registered by other means, or how many of the registrants would have voted.

How do Alaska’s proposals compare to what other states are doing?

Some parts of the administration’s elections bill are identical to legislation in other states.

Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas were among the states that passed laws last year prohibiting elections departments from accepting financial grants that came from private individuals or grants. Alaska’s new bill includes that ban as well, though the state hasn’t accepted any such grants since 2016.

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Alaska allows voters to confirm their ID with a piece of mail, like a utility bill, and the administration’s new legislation would eliminate that. Other states also have eliminated that ability. Here in Alaska, a poll worker would still be able to verify a voter even without any ID as long as they know them personally.

But the administration’s elections bill isn’t as extreme as measures imposed in some states.

Take the provision that would ban third-party groups from submitting absentee ballots on behalf of voters. The administration’s proposal includes a carve-out that allows family members or someone the voter designates to drop off their ballot for them.

Many Republican-led states are considering or have passed similar laws; Wisconsin Republicans are seeking to ban anyone except the voter from submitting a ballot, which would make it more difficult for the disabled or elderly to vote.

The administration’s proposal also includes no provision that would allow partisan elected officials to override election results, something Republicans in other states have sought.

For example, Arkansas created a partisan board that can override nonpartisan local election officials, and other states have proposed similar legislation. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has proposed placing the city’s elections under the control of an elected official, rather than one appointed by the municipal Assembly.

Georgia and other states have significantly reduced the number of ballot dropboxes, making it more difficult to reliably submit absentee ballots. Alaska’s legislation doesn’t mention them at all.

Alaska allows any voter to vote absentee for any reason; other states, including some Democratic-controlled ones, limit absentee voting to people who meet certain requirements, such as being out of the state on Election Day.

David Becker, a Washington, D.C.-based elections consultant who has worked with the Alaska Division of Elections in the past, said that nationally, the best election changes have been those proposed by nonpartisan elections officials and those that have support from both Republicans and Democrats, as happened in Kentucky.

What do Democrats think of this new push?

The Alaska House of Representatives is controlled by a predominantly Democratic coalition majority, which means legislative Democrats will have a significant say in whether election-related legislation passes or fails.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, has been promoting a bill that would expand access to voting, including absentee voting. He said that while it’s possible that ideas within the governor’s bill may advance, they could be incorporated into a separate piece of legislation.

Any legislation that advances must ensure voting rights, he said.

Dunleavy is running for governor this fall, and his Democratic challenger, Les Gara, said the push for voting reform is “certainly” a campaign tactic rather than a serious legislative effort.

That’s a charge repeated by some of the governor’s Republican opponents, including Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, and Rep. Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla and a Republican candidate for governor.

Meyer acknowledged that avoiding the appearance of conflict or bias is critical. On the same day he announced the push for elections legislation, he said he will not run for reelection.

The push for reform, he said, will be his last major act as lieutenant governor.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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