JUNEAU — A bill to update Alaska’s election laws passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday, part of a bipartisan effort to revive a set of proposals that failed during last year’s legislative session.
The bill, which heads next to the Senate Finance Committee, is a compromise that largely avoids more controversial changes to how the state’s elections are run. It would establish a ballot curing process, signature verification, ballot tracking and requirements to more regularly update voter rolls, among other elements. It does not include any reforms to how campaigns are financed, nor does it alter the state’s ranked-choice voting system.
The provisions — salvaged from an unsuccessful 2022 election bill — would allow voters to correct errors on their ballots once they are submitted, allow election workers to more reliably verify the identity of voters, and allow voters to track their by-mail ballots after they are submitted.
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat who chairs the State Affairs Committee, said the bill is based on his collaboration with Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican who chaired the committee last year.
Kawasaki said that while only two weeks remain before the Legislature must wrap up its work for the year, he is hopeful the bill can be adopted by both the House and Senate by the end of the session.
“I recognize that not everything that we’re going to pass in the Senate would pass in the House, but we have sort of tacitly agreed to making sure that we pass the things that we both agree on in both bodies,” said Kawasaki.
The bill aims to address several ongoing concerns with Alaska’s elections, including onerous requirements that have been blamed for reducing turnout in rural parts of the state and among voters for whom English is not a primary language.
It would also address concerns raised in a lawsuit filed last year, which accused the state officials of violating voters’ constitutional rights by failing to implement a process to fix defective ballots. The bill would give voters the opportunity to correct their ballots if there are errors, including a missing or unverifiable signature or identifier. Under the bill, the state Division of Elections would be required to contact voters by phone or mail to inform them of issues with their ballot, and then provide them the opportunity to correct it.
The bill would also repeal a requirement for a witness signature on absentee ballots that was responsible for thousands of ballot rejections last year in the state’s first by-mail election.
Witness signatures are meant to prevent voting misconduct, but the division currently has no method of verifying the witness signature, and accepts any mark on the signature line without review. The witness signature requirement disproportionately affected rural Alaska voters in the 2022 special primary election, the state’s first by-mail election. In one rural district, nearly 11% of all ballots cast were rejected for missing witness signatures.
Another part of the bill would require the Division of Elections to send absentee ballots in Alaska Native languages when voters request them. The state has repeatedly failed to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which mandates offering language assistance in parts of the state where English is not the primary language.
The bill would also allow the Division of Elections to begin counting absentee ballots before election day and require election workers to post early tabulations of ranked choice elections before all ballots are counted. In 2022, Alaskans had to wait two weeks after election day to get the results of some races that came down to ranked choice tabulations, because election officials had decided not to release preliminary tabulations.
Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican who has taken the lead on election reform legislation in the House majority, said she would consider the Senate election reform bill if it reaches the House.
In the meantime, she is advancing a much narrower bill that would empower the Division of Elections to revoke voter registrations more easily and clear voter rolls of inactive voters more frequently, following a step promoted by Republican lawmakers in a number of other states. State officials have not reported any indication of widespread voter fraud in recent elections.
Vance said she was also interested in some of the measures in the Senate’s bill, including ballot curing and signature verification.
“People who make a mistake don’t feel that there’s a process that their vote can count,” she said.
Contribution limits off the table
One thing that didn’t make it into this year’s Senate election bill: campaign finance reform.
Alaska used to have some of the lowest political donation limits in the country — $500 per person, per year. But in 2021, a federal appeals court ruled that the caps unconstitutionally restricted free speech.
In the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers proposed various new caps. A bill to limit contributions at $2,000 per person, per year, passed the House but stalled in the Senate. The session ended with no resolution on the issue — and large donations to candidates for governor and candidates in competitive legislative races began pouring in ahead of the 2022 election. Since then, efforts to install a new cap appear to have fizzled out.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten an agreement on any sort of campaign finance reform bill this year,” said Kawasaki, who received several four-figure checks in his recent campaign.
“But at the same time, I personally believe that most candidates for office and most elected officials would prefer to spend their time campaigning rather than fundraising,” Kawasaki said.
A bill introduced by Kawasaki to limit contributions to $700 per person, per year, while allowing the figure to rise with inflation, has been heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee, but the committee has not advanced the bill after some members raised concerns it would face the same challenge to its constitutionality that ended the state’s previous limit.
Opponents of limits on campaign contributions point to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case called Citizens United, which found that money equals speech.
“Campaign contributions is freedom of speech and I believe that we shouldn’t be limiting political speech and therefore we shouldn’t be limiting campaign contributions,” said Vance.
A last-ditch effort to repeal ranked choice voting
The election bill making its way through the Senate also does not change any of the election reforms implemented through a ballot measure that passed in 2020, including ranked choice voting and open primaries.
Several conservative Republicans have said they intend to work on repealing ranked choice voting, but members of the bipartisan Senate majority have signaled they do not intend to repeal any part of the 2020 ballot measure that passed by a narrow margin, implementing a new election system that was first used last year.
In a hearing Tuesday on a bill to repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries, Vance, who introduced the bill, said that it had been the top issue she had heard about from her constituents. She said that the system, which allows voters to rank up to four candidates on the general election ballot, was overly complex and confusing.
Public testimony in the House State Affairs Committee hearing was three-to-one in favor of keeping ranked choice voting and open primaries.
Repealing the new voting system was said to be the top legislative priority for some House Republicans at the start of the legislative session. Apart from one committee hearing on a similar repeal bill in late March, Tuesday’s public testimony was the first legislative hearing this year on ending ranked-choice voting.
Vance said Wednesday that despite the Senate’s disinterest in returning to the state’s old voting system, and overwhelming testimony opposing her bill, the measure was “still a priority.”
“I think it’s still a possibility because I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the last couple weeks of session,” she said.
Facing unlikely odds, opponents of ranked choice voting and open primaries have turned their efforts to a new ballot initiative. Art Mathias, one of the sponsors behind the repeal group, said it had collected just over half of the 27,000 signatures required to get the petition on a statewide ballot. The group has until February to submit its petition booklets to the Division of Elections.
If the signatures are verified and approved, the initiative would likely appear on the 2024 November election ballot. A simple majority of voters would be required to approve the ranked-choice voting repeal initiative.