Assembly Weighs Election Date Change

Image by Josh Edge, APRN - Anchorage.
Image by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

An Anchorage Assembly member wants to move the Municipal Election from spring to fall. He says he believes it will boost turnout, which has averaged around 29 percent since 1993, but other Assembly members says it’s a bad idea and want the public to weigh in before any change is made.

Anchorage Assembly member Chris Birch is proposing an ordinance that would change the municipal election from April to November to coincide with state and federal elections. He says turnout is more than double for state elections in November.

Article by the Anchorage Times.
Article by the Anchorage Times.

“So the objective is to move the election to a time when people actually show up to vote,” Birch said.

Birch says the one year when issues were put on the November ballot there was a sharp increase in turnout.

“The high point really is an election that happened in 2004 when we contracted with the state to run a school bond election, two school bonds, they passed and we had a 52 percent turnout,” Birch said. “And that’s basically what spurred my interest in seeing a dramatic increase, a doubling if you will of municipal voter turnout.”

Twice before, the election has been moved. In 2000 the election was moved from the third to the first Tuesday in April. In 1988 the election moved from October to April. The rational was the same as moving it to the fall today, higher voter turnout. And the concerns were the same: the ethical impacts of sitting Assembly members extending their own terms and the Mayor’s. They solved that problems by delaying the effective date for three years.

Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson says increasing voter turnout is a great idea, but there’ no rush. Municipal Attorneys says it would be legal, although it would increase the terms of sitting assembly members by seven months. Gray-Jackson along with Assembly members Dick Traini and Tim Steel have a counter proposal.

“The proposal that Mr. Traini, Mr. Steel and I have brought forward is to instead of the Assembly making a decision whether or not to move the election from April to November, letting the voters decide when they want to vote,” Gray-Jackson said.

Gray Jackson says Assembly members extending their own terms creates a conflict of interest. Assembly member Birch has served on the Assembly for three consecutive terms equaling nine years. This is his final term. Gray-Jackson says that makes his proposal problematic.

“If I were Mr. Birch, whose term is over April 1st I would feel so uncomfortable bringing forward this ordinance right now,” Gray-Jackson said. “If he really were concerned about voter turnout, why didn’t he do it during the nine-year period that he was on the Assembly.”

But Birch says he believes it’s fine for him to extend his term since every other Assembly member and the Mayor would also get their terms extended.

Birch: “It would extend my term and every other member’s term on the body. It affects every member on the body uniformly.”
Daysha: “But you’re the only member who’s terming out, right?”
Birch: “Yeah, that’s right.”

Besides increasing voter turnout, holding elections in November could save money, Birch says, because the state and municipality could share resources such as election workers and voting machines. Birch and the Officials with the Clerk’s office have talked with Gail Fenumiai, the Director of the Alaska Division of Elections. She says it’s possible.

“We just talked about whether or not that could happen and we’ve come to the conclusion that it could,” Fenumiai said. “You know it’s still very early – a little premature to get into any details. There’s still a lot of work that the Anchorage folks need to do on their end to see if that’s even going to become a reality for them.”

Officials with the Clerk’s office say the initial change would require an investment. The seven-month extension will also apply to Mayor Dan Sullivan’s term.

Birch’s ordinance seeking to change elections from April to November will be up for public testimony at the Tuesday, Nov. 14 Assembly meeting along with the ordinances offered by Assembly members proposing the issue go before voters.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.