Meet the machine handling Anchorage’s next election

Anchorage’s newest piece of equipment to handle the upcoming Vote By Mail system arrived in several boxes and cost $610,599 to purchase (photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

Though still a few months away, Anchorage is getting ready for its first election set to be conducted by mail. In April, as residents pick a mayor and weigh in on a controversial public bathroom measure, they won’t be heading to the usual polling locations. Instead, they’ll be sending envelopes to a white, rectangular sorting machine that arrived at the city’s election center Monday morning.

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Moving trucks backed up to an expansive warehouse that’s largely empty, save for clusters of new election equipment and computers. Half-a-dozen workers used wrenches and drills to take apart shoulder-high wooden crates. The cargo inside was metal sorting trays and a boxy machine that resembles a filing cabinet.

The official name is the Bell and Howell Envelope Intake and Signature Verification System, Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser explained. Moser is responsible for overseeing much of the multi-year process converting Anchorage to a Vote By Mail election system. The Bell and Howell machine cost the municipality $610,599, and the Anchorage Assembly voted to include an additional $56,790 contract for installation and continued support.

This particular piece of equipment is a crucial part of the new order. Voters will now get ballots sent to them 21 days before an election. They can turn ballots in at any time, either by mail, putting them inside giant metal deposit boxes distributed across town, or at a drop-off site. When the envelopes arrive at the election center by Ship Creek, the Bell and Howell machine starts comparing signatures to those on record, and sorting valid ballots to tabulate the votes.

“We’ll be able to do this process for weeks before the election, and we’re going to be scanning the results but not finalizing them,” Moser said. “So on election night we will be able to report results as the polls close.”

The change only affects local municipal elections, like those for mayor, assembly and school board seats, along with bonds and ballot propositions. For state and federal elections in November there will still be 122 polling sites set up across the city.

Part of the reason the city started looking into Vote By Mail in 2014 was to save on the expense of staffing so many locations and maintaining the equipment. Local officials are hoping to increase turnout in local elections, which has been between just a third and a quarter of eligible voters in recent years.

The traditional voting model also depends on the participation of hundreds of trained election workers.

“We’re really beginning to see a lot of those folks retire,” Moser said. “It’s getting harder and harder to have enough workers to make election day happen.”

Three states have already implemented Vote By Mail systems — Oregon, Washington and Colorado. The clerk’s office has been looking to them as models while it designs procedures of its own, and tries to get voters ready for the big change in how Anchorage residents pick their local government.

More information on the Municipality’s Vote By Mail system is available here.