Elections division has plan to save $220,000 per year

A new piece of legislation being considered by the Alaska Division of Elections could save the state $220,000 per year.

The bill, which has not yet been introduced into the Alaska Legislature, was discussed in public at a Jan. 30 meeting in Juneau of the state’s elections policy task force.

“Without it, I guess we would be considering additional funds in our operating budget,” said division director Josie Bahnke by phone on Monday.

The proposed legislation is expected to refine a ballot measure approved by voters in 2016. That measure allows Alaskans to automatically register to vote (or update their voter registration) every time they register for the Permanent Fund Dividend. Prospective voters are simply asked on an online form if they want their PFD registration to be shared with the Division of Elections.

The system was implemented in March 2017, at the tail end of the PFD registration process for the year (the final day to register for dividends was March 31, just as it is this year). About 25,000 Alaskans were added to the voter rolls, and another 50,000 had their addresses updated, even given the abbreviated timeline.

This year will be the first full year of the program, but Bahnke told the task force last week that the system has some wrinkles that need to be fixed.

Under the system, eligible voters’ addresses in the Division of Elections database are compared with addresses in the Permanent Fund Dividend database. If someone is listed in the dividend database but not in the voter database, the listing in the voter database is automatically updated. Felons, non-citizens and other ineligible people are not included in the program.

Before the databases are linked, everyone with a changed registration receives a mailer asking if they want to opt out. If that mailer doesn’t come back within 30 days, the listing is updated. In either case, it involves a lot of work for the Division of Elections.

“We’ve been having to manually process all of those,” Bahnke said of the voter registration information under the new system.

Ideally, the program would be run as it currently does with the Division of Elections. There, the information crosses much more seamlessly. Any time someone gets a new driver’s license, they can update their voter registration or register for the first time (assuming they pass appropriate checks). The information is shared directly between databases, with less staff work (and thus less cost).

Because the ballot measure passed as a law, another law is needed to change it, hence the need for legislation.

David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, consults with the state of Alaska and other states on elections issues. He said it’s typical to have problems integrating a new system.

“This is entirely normal. This happens all the time. There are always data compatability issues,” he said. “There are always technical issues that affect integration. If this had been seamless, there would have been something wrong.”

Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar, who covers elections issues for the State of Alaska, told the task force that the bill should be drafted by Feb. 6. If that deadline holds true, it could be introduced by the end of the month.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, warned the task force that the timing involved means the bill probably won’t pass the Legislature this year.

“This should have been introduced a long time ago if you expect it to get through this session,” he said. “Time is running out fast for this.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

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