Alaska lawmakers eye ways to improve voter access to polls

JUNEAU -- Come next election, Alaskans may be able to register to vote as late as Election Day under bills introduced in the Senate and House that call for elimination of the current 30-day pre-election voter cutoff.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, ran for lieutenant governor last year and discussed voting issues and problems with people all over the state, she said.

"The biggest issue people had was access to voting and making it easier," she said. "We have really low rates in our state."

McGuire's bill, Senate Bill 93, and a companion bill, House Bill 95, would allow Alaskans to register and vote on the same day. Now, they must have been registered a month before an election to cast a ballot.

"Same-day voting is important to people who move into the state, and residents who move (within the state) and miss that 30-day deadline and still want their voice to count," McGuire said.

Author of the House bill, Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said allowing same-day registration would also be good for first-time voters.

"Oftentimes we have voters who never voted before but get spurred up on an issue, but don't learn about it until the last days but want to voice their opinion on it through the ballot," Tuck said.


The bills call for late registrants to cast a questioned ballot, which McGuire and Tuck said would be verified before being counted.

The bills also call for online voter registration. Now, voters can download a printed application and mail it in, but the bills call for using the existing myAlaska site and online signatures for registration. That's similar to what many Alaskans already do for their Permanent Fund dividend application, she said.

"The myAlaska platform provides an easy way to do voter registration. There's no reason they should have to go to any separate agency or go down to the Division of Elections," McGuire said.

Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said she supports going to online registration and is already working on implementing it.

The bills would also change how early voting locations are referred and would do away with the term "absentee in-person." Soon, it may all be called "early voting" in an effort to clear up misconceptions about who can do it.

The answer, said Fenumiai, is everyone can vote early or "absentee in-person," but many people have had a mistaken belief that a reason, or even a doctor's note, was required.

"We've made it perfectly clear to voters that Alaska is a 'no excuse' absentee voting state," Fenumiai said.

She said the proposed change could help clear up confusion.

"A lot of Alaskans, particularly our seniors, have had a belief that the old view was still in effect that you had to have a medical reason to vote absentee," McGuire said.

"One of the things that we wanted to do was clarify that any Alaskan who wants to can vote early," she said.

Tuck called the "absentee in-person" term now in use "oxymoronic."

"Well which is it? Is it absentee or is it in-person?" he said.

The bills would also call for the same early voting locations to be used in each election, if possible. And it would allow for permanent absentee voting registration for voters who plan to cast their ballot by mail in every election.

McGuire acknowledged it would be difficult to pass a bill introduced so late in the session, but said there may be interim hearings on the bill. She hopes it is passed and in place before the 2016 statewide elections.

The bills have no fiscal note, meaning they are not expected to cost the state anything to implement. That lack of cost is an important consideration in the current fiscal climate.