Juneau’s voter turnout is 23.5 percent. Sad, isn’t it? Last week Juneau City Clerk Laurie Sika offered an adjective to describe Juneau’s non-voting electorate: ‘Apathetic.’ I would use a less delicate version of that term: Pathetic.
The Juneau Empire is proposing online voting as a means of addressing the problem, citing positive examples in Oregon and Latvia. While I have no doubt that online voting would increase voter participation, it would also increase citizen suspicion about the legitimacy of election results with not-unwarranted fears of election tampering or hacking.
I applaud the current initiative to use Permanent Fund Dividend applications to achieve greater voter registration. It’s an excellent start, but it doesn’t go far enough. There have been many efforts in the past to boost voter registration, but I agree with the Empire’s conclusion: the problem isn’t one of registration, it’s one of participation. Most eligible voters in Alaska are already registered; they just don’t show up to vote, as demonstrated by recent statewide elections that have average turnouts of only one-third of registered voters. How about linking the actual voting process to receipt of the PFC? Here’s how it could work:
• In order to receive a dividend, every adult must show up at the polls in person for that year’s statewide or municipal election. They don’t have to vote, just show up at the polls and register their name. They can turn around and walk right back out if they choose, but I think that most of them would proceed to vote since they already made the effort to show up. If they’re unable to make it to the polls in person, they can register for an absentee ballot and mail back the ballot envelope, with or without the ballot enclosed. All of the other existing PFD eligibility requirements would still have to be met, of course.
• This would be simple to implement — every component of this proposal already exists. We wouldn’t have to invent complicated new systems such as online voting. As an added benefit, this would be one more double-check to catch both voter and PFD fraud.
Alaska residents can’t be bothered to perform their most important civic duty, yet unfailingly hold out their hands for thousands of Permanent Fund dollars from the state every year. Surely it isn’t too much to ask of Alaskans to perform such a simple task in return for free money. This isn’t curtailing anyone’s right to vote — they can vote without applying for the PFD. And it isn’t forcing anyone to vote, either. It’s merely incentivizing them to make an appearance at the polling place on Election Day. After that, it’s up to them. I confess that I’ve forgotten to vote in a few municipal elections in the past, but I guarantee that if my dividend was on the line, I wouldn’t fail to show up.
Deploy this simple solution and Alaska would immediately lead the United States in voter turnout by a large margin, something we all could be proud of. More importantly, our state would benefit from greater civic engagement. But don’t count on all of our political leaders to warmly embrace efforts to broaden voter turnout. Some of them win elections by motivating their small, loyal constituencies to show up at the polls by focusing on narrow, hot-button topics rather than larger issues of substance. Low turnout also allows special interests to gain outsized influence for the same reasons. Once a large cross-section of voters start casting their ballots, candidates will be forced to take positions on the full range of issues, which can reveal a more complete picture of them than voters often get.
Not sure if Alaskans would support this proposal? Let’s put it to a vote.