A drop box awaits ballots at Don D. Statter Harbor in late September 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Petition seeks to limit local vote-by-mail options

Group wants voters to weigh in on the future of municipal elections

To vote by mail or not to vote by mail—that’s the question Juneau’s voters may face when casting ballots during October’s municipal election.

On Wednesday, five Juneau residents led by Ed King filed a petition to add a ballot measure that would amend the municipal code so that city officials can only hold vote-by-mail elections during pandemics.

The filing comes on the heels of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly’s Monday evening vote to conduct the October municipal election primarily by mail with at least two polling places and two drop boxes. According to the city’s plan, every registered voter in Juneau would receive a ballot in the mail before election day. Like in the 2020 election, ballots will be counted in Anchorage, as Juneau lacks the equipment needed to count mail-in ballots locally.

Municipal election to be conducted mostly by mail

As part of the decision to proceed with that approach, assembly members agreed to seek public comment before deciding how to conduct future municipal elections. However, they declined to entertain an option to add an advisory question about the voting process to the ballot this fall, a suggestion made during the meeting’s public comment section.

According to King, the decision not to pursue the advisory question prompted his petition. He acknowledged that the petition’s wording is not ideal, but it was the best process given assembly procedures.

“Our preference is an advisory vote, followed by an ordinance in response to the result,” he said.

If City Clerk Beth McEwen certifies the petition, the group will need to gather about 3,000 signatures to get the question on the October ballot.

Seeking broader public input

“I’m an advocate for the public process. I just want to be sure that the community is engaged,” King said in a phone interview with the Empire Thursday morning. “A lot of people are concerned about election security after the last election process.”

According to the Associated Press, voter fraud has proved exceedingly rare. The Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 ranked the risk of ballot fraud at 0.00004% to 0.0009%, based on studies of past elections.

King, who ran to represent District 32 in the state House of Representatives in the November 2020 general election, said that he’s not personally against mail-in ballots. He said his primary concern is the cost associated with mailing ballots to all registered voters rather than asking people who wish to vote by mail to request a ballot online. He pointed out that the 40% voter turnout during the 2020 election means 60% of ballots were not returned.

“Spending an extra $200,000 a year to remove the one-click required to request a ballot doesn’t seem like a good use of money,” he said. “We’ve always had the option of voting by mail. The process last year removed that one step, so the bar is lower.”

King said he has concerns about voter integrity perceptions if city Assembly members don’t ask for public input on the voting process.

“Given that the election process involves the way that we elect officials, it seems like we need the community to weigh in. I’d hate to have people question our election results here,” he said. “If people vote yes, it’s proof positive that people want that. Once we decide we are going to do mail-in voting, we should think carefully about votes getting counted here locally. But, we need to make sure the community has that discussion.”

King said he rejects the assertion that having two polling places open is a substitute for local polling places on election day because the polling places are likely at government offices downtown and may not be convenient.

“That increases the barrier to in-person voting,” King said.

During the 2020 election, one of the two in-person polling places was at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library.

King said that the petition effort is purely grassroots and that he’s not working with a political party or an organization. He also said that his status as a former candidate for the state house has nothing to do with his petition.

“It’s just friends and me. We don’t have a plan for fundraising. We are just going to figure it out as we go. The fact that we have this question on a mail-in ballot shows we aren’t opposed to mail-in ballots,” he said.

By-mail election decision needs public input

City response

Loren Jones, a long-time city assembly member, expressed support for King’s right to submit the petition but called some of his arguments “red herrings” when reached by phone Thursday afternoon.

“Some of his arguments are a little off base, but we will see what happens in the end,” Jones said.

Jones said it’s unsurprising that some ballots are not returned as addresses change and some people just throw ballots away because they choose not to vote.

He said that the state board of elections controls the voter rolls, not the city.

Jones said he understood King’s point about mail-in election costs. But, he said that a traditional election also has costs.

“When you have an in-person election, you have to staff 13 polling locations and you pay people by the hour to be there. You have to print enough ballots assuming everyone will show up to vote.”

Jones said that election poll workers are sometimes on duty for 12 or 13 hours.

“Mail is a little more expensive. But, there are similar costs and you prepare to have a high turn out,” he said, noting that city officials can’t scale an upcoming election based on the turnout of the prior election.

Overall, Jones said that there are many “misconceptions” and lots of “misinformation” about the voting process. As examples, he cited the pervasive idea that the city is in charge of the voter registration process rather than the state and the idea that people can vote multiple times with mail-in ballots.

“Part of the canvassing process is to make sure that people don’t vote more than once,” he said.

In addition to the canvassing process to verify ballot eligibility, various laws protect election integrity. Knowingly voting more than once is a crime in Alaska.

The Juneau Empire has asked to see the petition, but a citywide communications outage Thursday meant that the document was not available for review. Likewise, additional city assembly members could not be reached for comment.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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