Reactions mixed as Vote By Mail approaches deadline in Anchorage

I Voted sticker (Photo by Maggie Schoenfeld)

As Anchorage residents test out the city’s first Vote By Mail election, reviews are mixed. So far, the system is not without kinks. But the experiment is proceeding steadily toward its April 3rd deadline.

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It’s been more than two years since the Anchorage Assembly approved a measure in December of 2015 that set the wheels in motion for a mail-in voting system. Since then, the city clerk’s office has steadily tried to raise awareness about the big change in how residents exercise their civic duty.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is on the same page about the switch.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Alex Jorgensen said outside the student union at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

“I do think it is an absolutely terrible idea for our city,” Sterling Emmal said at the midtown Barnes and Noble.

“I mean if it works it would be great,” Kim Branson said standing outside the same book store. “A lot more convenient than having to hunt down where your voting place is.”

“It makes it easier, but doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Victoria Anderson said in midtown. “I’m going to miss meeting up with my neighbors. I like going to vote, I kind of look forward to seeing people I only see there.”

Ballots were mailed out to residents in mid-March, allowing for about three weeks before they need to be sent back in or dropped off at secure locations. That is, if the mailing address on file was correct. Around 18,000 ballots were sent back to the Clerk’s office because of outdated voter information.

For Garrison Theroux, who lives in town, the new system generated a more minor headache.

“I’m sure it’s convenient for a lot of people, but I actually get my mail out in Eagle River at my parents’ house,” Theroux explained. “So I have to drive out to Eagle River and then drive back to vote.”

Security has been a very public concern. 46 ballots were stolen from mailboxes and found in the snow earlier this month in Chugiak. The incident was quickly handled by election officials, but it embodied many residents worries that a general city-wide issue with mail theft could affect election results.

The clerk’s office says it has taken many precautions to ensure a secure vote. That includes placing locked drop boxes across town, and opening five centers spread throughout the municipality to handle ballot issues.

Some residents though, contend that the election shouldn’t rely on the mail system.

Josiah Nash believes that because the return envelopes require a first-class stamp, it amounts to having to pay money just to vote.

“I think it really hinders the accessibility of voting,” Nash said outside the UAA student union. “Especially for people who are poor, or do not have access to a car. Vote By Mail you have to have a mailbox and you have to buy stamps.”

Nash says the new system may even violate residents’ civil rights. As of yet, that’s not a point that has swayed the American Civil Liberties Union in Alaska. A spokesperson for the group, Casey Reynolds, wrote in an email that they are monitoring the new election system and has some concerns, but nothing that currently rises to the level of a potential lawsuit.

Supporters of Vote By Mail say that it streamlined a lot of work that goes into running polling stations on election day, and gives voters more time to learn about the candidates and issues.

Even though she was put off by needing postage to return her ballot, Cheyenne Mathews doesn’t think the old way of doing things was perfect, either.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh well, that’s a new and unfortunate system if you have to pay to vote,’ but then I guess the theory behind it is, if everyone already in the past had to go to a registered voter station and actually be there, it’s really very similar to saying you have to go to a registered voter box and just drop it off there,” Mathews said.

One of the biggest reasons for switching to Vote By Mail was to try and increase turnout among registered voters in Anchorage, which can be abysmally low in local elections. In 2013, just 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

As of Wednesday night, the Clerk’s office had received 35,054 ballots — that’s 17.7 percent of the 198,000 mailed to the city’s qualified voters, with almost a week remaining until the April 3rd deadline.