Anchorage to hold first vote-by-mail election in April

For the first time, the April 2018 Anchorage Municipal election will be held through a vote-by-mail process. Ballots will be sent out about three weeks beforehand, giving voters time to fill them out and send them in.

This new procedure will replace the old one in which voters had to travel to their designated polling places. They will no longer be required to vote at a certain location.

“That gives people a chance to take a look at it and maybe sit down with their family to discuss the issues and so forth,” Joyce Anderson, president of the League of Women Voters, said.

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The Municipality of Anchorage offers tours for the public to view the sorting and verification process. Photo credit: Municipal Clerk’s Office at the Division of Elections

Anderson has been working with the Municipality of Anchorage on education and outreach for vote-by-mail. She says that some of the reasons Municipality decided to turn to vote-by-mail were to increase voter turnout and convenience. The equipment was also getting old, requiring replacement parts that the manufacturer no longer made.

Now, the election headquarters in downtown Anchorage contains brand new equipment that is specialized for the vote-by-mail process.

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Registered voters will receive their ballots in the mail. When they are filled out, they can return a ballot in one of three ways: drop them off in one of the 12 secure drop boxes that will be stationed throughout Anchorage, mail it with USPS first class postage or take it to an accessible vote center, like the Municipal election center.

Carolyn Hall, an education and outreach coordinator with the Municipal Clerk’s Office, says that voters are encouraged to save money and use the drop boxes or visit an accessible vote center.

Hall also recognizes the concerns about fraud and security that some voters may have and says the entire process that a ballot goes through after leaving the voters’ hands is intended to protect the voter. All of their policies and procedures should run “as efficiently and responsibly as possible.”

“No matter what, there’s always at least two people handling ballots,” Hall said.

After ballots are dropped off at the election headquarters, they will be fed through a machine that inspects the voter signature along with other details, such as the thickness of the envelope and the printed barcode. There will be a trained team verifying signatures and any discrepancies will be handled by a resolution team.

One part of the building has access to the local intranet for computers assigned to their call center, but the rest of the equipment intended to handle election ballots are air-gapped. This is to decrease the risk of tampering or hacking.

Additional security measures are as detailed as keeping an audit log of any employee who takes a look at election results before polls are closed as well as running a mock election in December 2017. Fake ballots were sent out to employees who were invited to present challenges for the vote-by-mail process, such as destroying the ballots.

Hall says this allowed them to consider new disparities and come up with ways to resolve them.

The public is invited to see this process at the election headquarters.

“We really welcome people to come in because nobody really knows what’s going on in here,” Hall said.

Compared to Anchorage City Hall where previous elections were held, the new headquarters is a renovated warehouse that is more open and accessible.

Schawna Thoma from Northern Compass Group, a consulting firm, says vote-by-mail may also affect campaigning strategies. It is traditional for candidates to campaign and market closer to election day, but now that voters will have more time, that could change.

“Now, it’s a little bit of a moving target,” Thoma said. “When is ‘get out the vote?’ Is it three weeks long? Is it the beginning, the middle, the end?”

There could be an uptick in campaign efforts during the first week and last, Thoma said.

Hall looks forward to seeing what voter turnout will be. For the 2015 mayoral election, it was at 35 percent, and for last year’s municipal election, it was about 23 percent.

“We are very excited about the potential voter turnout,” Hall said. “We want more people to be involved.”

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Anderson also says that she is excited about vote-by-mail, seeing that Washington, Oregon and Colorado have already implemented this process.

The deadline for voter registration is March 4. Ballots will not be forwarded, so voters must ensure their mailing address is correct. Hall says that voters can also sign up for informed delivery through USPS to keep track of their ballot to prevent mail theft.

More information, including an interactive map of vote centers and drop boxes, can be found online at muni.org/elections.