From left to right, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members Carole Triem, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs and Wade Bryson listen to City Clerk Beth McEwen as she speaks about election code changes Monday night at the Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting where member’s OK’d the city to move an ordinance to make vote-by-mail elections the default in Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

From left to right, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members Carole Triem, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs and Wade Bryson listen to City Clerk Beth McEwen as she speaks about election code changes Monday night at the Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting where member’s OK’d the city to move an ordinance to make vote-by-mail elections the default in Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

City moves to make vote-by-mail elections the default in Juneau

The ordinances are set to be introduced in May and open for public hearing in June.

Vote-by-mail elections are set to become the default in Juneau moving forward after three years of using the method in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that stopped many voters from going in person to cast their ballots.

The option to vote in person will still be available though, said City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Clerk Beth McEwen, as it was during last October’s election. McEwen said by making by-mail elections a permanent option for Juneau voters it will provide more accessibility for residents who are unable to go in-person or would rather fill out their ballot in the privacy of their homes.

“The last few elections we had a good voter turnout, and it’s convenient, it gives voters the privacy and convenience of their home,” she told the Empire. “But it’s also hybrid, they can still have the in-person voting experience if they choose to, but this provides the opportunity for those who can’t for whatever reason go in person.”

In last October’s election, the voter turnout amounted to just under 33% of all registered voters who participated in the election. In comparison, the 2021 election results pulled in a voter turnout of just under 31% and 40.5% in 2020 — the largest voter turnout in Juneau since 2000.

Prior to the pandemic in 2o19, voter turnout was around 23%.

The ballot drop box at Don D. Statter Harbor was one of a few places voters in Juneau casted their ballots during the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election last fall. Vote-by-mail elections are likely to become the default in Juneau moving forward. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

The ballot drop box at Don D. Statter Harbor was one of a few places voters in Juneau casted their ballots during the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election last fall. Vote-by-mail elections are likely to become the default in Juneau moving forward. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

On Monday evening, the Assembly meeting as the Committee of the Whole OK’d the city to move an ordinance that would overhaul the city’s current municipal code to permanently make by-mail elections the default for all CBJ elections going forward unless called for differently by the Assembly.

The Assembly also moved forward with an ordinance to change the Assembly’s District 1 and District 2 boundaries to be consistent with the state of Alaska’s precinct boundaries.

McEwen said there is little concern about any increased voter fraud activity with Juneau’s plan to make the permanent switch to by-mail elections as the default, as she said election officials saw no evidence of it during the past three by-mail elections.

“Anything that is a concern or issue is referred to the law department, so if someone tries to commit voter fraud we have checks and balances to ensure that is not actually something we would count in the election,” she said.

City Manager Rorie Watt shared a similar lack of concern about increased voter fraud and said he thinks the permanent change to by-mail elections will be a good decision for the city and could increase voter turnout moving forward, especially since the city opened a new local Ballot Processing Center this past fall.

“People have strong feelings about elections and they can be varied, but the thing about vote by mail is you still have many options as a voter,” he said. “You can still come on Election Day and cast your vote in person, you can mail it in, you can drop it off. I think by doing vote by mail we are giving voters more options and more flexibility.”

The city’s move to make Juneau’s election District 1 and District 2 boundaries to be consistent with the state of Alaska’s precinct line is a change voters should be aware of, McEwen said, but noted it won’t necessarily change residents’ ballots or how they vote.

“The Assembly is elected area-wide, they serve area-wide. Every voter in Juneau gets the same exact ballot unlike the state, where if you’re living in District 3, you only get a House District 3 seat ballot,” McEwen said during the meeting. “In Juneau, it’s just the candidate and their residence that is affected by the Assembly district line.”

The city’s redistricting will essentially make Assembly District 1 — which generally includes the Douglas, downtown, Lemon Creek and airport area — the same as the state’s House District 4, and make Assembly District 2 — which generally includes the Auke Bay, Lynn Canal and Mendenhall Valley area — the same as the portion of House District 4 that lies within the city’s boundaries.

The ordinances are expected to be introduced in May and open for public hearing at the June 12 Assembly meeting.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807.

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