PFD voter registration campaign awaits election date

JUNEAU -- Thousands of signatures of Alaskans seeking to link Permanent Fund dividend applications to voter registrations were turned in to the state Division of Elections Thursday, but it will be months before Alaskans will know when, or even if, that will result in an election.

The PFD Voter Registration campaign wants to change state law to make voter registration automatic for eligible voters signing up for their dividends.

The signatures turned in Thursday were 25 percent more than the number needed, the group said, meaning that even if some prove to not be from registered voters there will likely be a sufficient margin to qualify for the ballot.

Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke said Thursday that her office had confirmed that an adequate number of signatures on petition booklets had been submitted for her office for the signature review process to begin.

By statute, Bahnke said, the division has 60 days to review them, but hopes to have it done somewhat sooner.

"We're kind of all-hands-on-deck processing the booklets," she said.

If there are adequate signatures, that still doesn't mean the issue will be on the ballot this year. The Legislature can adopt substantially equivalent voter registration on its own and forestall an election.

Kim Reitmeier, campaign co-chair, said the group has no preference on how PFD voter registration becomes law. But Reitmeier said that given the reluctance of legislators to take steps to increase voter registration in recent years, she doubted that would happen in the Alaska Legislature.

"I certainly would be willing and open to those conversations to move this forward, but we're moving forward right now with this initiative" and preparing for an election, she said.

If a measure becomes law after passage of an initiative, the Legislature can't repeal or change it for two years. There is no such protection for a law passed by legislators.

But Reitmeier said there didn't seem to be anyone actively opposed to the initiative.

If the measure does qualify for the ballot, it's not clear which ballot, and won't be for months, Bahnke said.

If the Legislature adjourns by its scheduled 90-day deadline of April 17, the PFD Voter Registration question would be on the August primary election, Bahnke said.

If it goes beyond the 90-day session that voters adopted in 2006, as it frequently does, then the PFD voter measure would be on the ballot in the November general election.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that as of 2012, 87 percent of eligible voters were actually registered to vote in Alaska, according to information provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That's above the national rate of 83 percent, but it still leaves many Alaskans unregistered and unable to vote, said David Becker, Pew's director of election initiatives.

Becker said the Alaska attempt to use its unique dividend program to boost voter registration was one of two intriguing election reforms he's watching. Another is Oregon's first-in-the-nation "motor-voter" law that makes those who apply for a driver's license or state identification card automatically registered to vote if they are eligible.

Although Becker said it's not clear from elections data that measures such as the PFD initiative will actually increase registration and voting, they have other benefits. Among them: Voter lists become much more accurate, he said.

Reitmeier said she's convinced using PFDs to make registration easier will increase voting rates, but will target improvements in rural Alaska where registration rates are lowest.

She said the group looked at adopting a motor-voter law, but instead concluded that using PFDs would reach more unregistered Alaskans.

"One of the reasons is more Alaskans apply for the PFD than a driver's license," she said.

"More of our intended audience applies for a dividend than they do a driver's license; in rural communities there are many eligible voters who do not have a driver's license," she said.

Reitmeier also serves as the executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, the group made up of the presidents of the corporations formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

That group has been a primary funder of the PFD Voter Registration campaign.