Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, during a review of a bill he submitted. Shower says the bill would strengthen Alaska’s election security while critics say it will make it harder for Alaskans to vote. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, during a review of a bill he submitted. Shower says the bill would strengthen Alaska’s election security while critics say it will make it harder for Alaskans to vote. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Security or suppression? Bill would change how Alaskans vote

Election security or voter suppression?

A bill that would change how state and local elections are conducted generated controversy even before it was debated by lawmakers.

Senate Bill 39 sponsored by Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, is not intended to make it more difficult to vote, he said at a State Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, but to bring trust back to Alaska’s elections. However, even before that meeting critics had said the bill would only make it hard for Alaskans to vote.

The bill would implement changes in how ballots are handled by both the Division of Elections and local municipalities which run their own elections. Many of the changes are centered around the chain of custody in handling ballots. Shower’s chief of staff Terrance Shanigan said in testimony to the committee that Alaska’s statutes around the handling of ballots are vague, which led to inconsistent policies and procedures.

The state should establish a baseline for election security, Shanigan said, and allow municipalities to use a variety of methods so long as they meet those standards.

“If we set certain standards that apply to everyone, everybody’s operating from the same baseline and they can apply that how that fits their organization or their community,” he said. “We lack that right now in our election system, and we need more definition, and we need to define it.”

The bill proposes 30 changes to Alaska’s election laws, and would prohibit municipalities from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, as the City and Borough of Juneau did in October for its election. The bill would also prohibit the collection of mail-in ballots by third parties. Under SB39,only a family member or caretaker can deliver the ballot of another voter, and that family member can only deliver one third party’s ballot at a time.

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SB39 would make it so the state no longer automatically registers Alaskans to vote when they submit applications for the Permanent Fund Dividend, but instead require people to check a box indicating they wish to be registered.

The bill would also create an election security hotline, that voters could use to report instances of election violations.

“There are no better checks and balances than empowering voters themselves at the most local level possible to become informal election observers,” Shower said.

After his office put out requests for information on social media, Shower said his office was contacted by hundreds of Alaskans from all regions of the state reporting potential violations.

But Shower’s bill was met very quickly with condemnation from Democrats and others who said the bill would make it harder for Alaskans to vote.

“It’ll be billed as voting reform but really it’s voter suppression, Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said Wednesday during a news conference. “This is going to hurt seniors and especially rural Alaska more than anything.”

The Anchorage branch of the NAACP called for Shower’s removal from the committee, and called the bill, “a local manifestation of the national white supremacist attack on voting rights, which included the recent violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”

That characterization drew a strong rebuke from Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, Friday, who said on the Senate floor Friday the NAACP had taken the bill out of context. Wilson, who is Black, said he regularly experienced racism in Alaska but was incensed by people who used the struggle of Black people to advance their own agendas.

“(NAACP Anchorage President Kevin McGee) is not interested in the advancement of colored people but the advancement of his own career,” Wilson said.

Others, including Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, questioned whether such provisions were necessary, and whether Alaska’s elections were as vulnerable as Shower claimed.

“What is the problem being solved, has the problem occurred,” Costello asked at the meeting. “I would like your staff to provide those examples for the committee.”

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees the Division of Elections, told the Empire in an interview he felt Alaska’s elections were already fairly secure.

“Our election process has a lot of checks and balances in place people aren’t aware of,” Meyer said.

As an example, he mentioned the state’s Election Review Board, which double checks the vote count from one randomly selected precinct from every district. Alaska belongs to the Electronic Registration Information Center, Meyer said, which has 30 states participating in comparing voter registration data between states.

The state uses Dominion voting machines which have a signature verification process, and while there have been questions around Dominion in the recent election, Meyer said he fully trusted the machines.

“I just don’t have any reason not to,” he said.

Dominion Voting Systems has filed defamation lawsuits against two lawyers for former-President Trump, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, for making repeated false claims about the company’s machines.

The bill is less about fraud and more about the error, Shanigan said. Fraud is rare, he said, but ballots could be determined valid or invalid by DOE policy, policy that changes with a new governor’s administration. The bill would set in statute eligibility criteria that would be consistent regardless of political leadership.

In an email, DOE spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said the division is unclear as to what Shanigan was referring to in regards to policies and procedures.

“We look forward to addressing any issues as the process moves along. The division conducts elections in full compliance with state statutes and regulations,” Montemayor said.

In its fiscal note to the committee, DOE said it was unable at this time to provide an amount until it could evaluate which of the proposals are additional or duplicates of existing provisions.

“Provisions being proposed that will result in increased costs include ballot security and chain of custody, the establishment of an election offense hotline and programming changes resulting from revisions to the Permanent Fund Dividend automatic voter registration program,” the note said.

Shanigan said during the meeting that the bill was meant to give municipalities the most control over their elections so long as they met a baseline standard. But that characterization is not what Alaska Municipal League executive director Nil Andreassen sees in the bill.

[113,000 Alaskan voter IDs exposed in data breach]

“I was surprised to hear the description that was offered,” he said in an interview. “If the bill is trying to increase or achieve local control, really the effect is doing the opposite.”

Andreassen found specific fault with Section 22 of the proposed revisions which would prevent a non-home rule municipality from sending out by-mail ballots unless they’ve been requested by the voter.

“There are local circumstances that mail-in voting may facilitate, communities that are spread out,” he said.

Missing from the conversation, Andreassen said, was a discussion over voter participation. Municipalities that had implemented mail-in voting had increased voter participation while maintaining election security. Andreassen said he saw no evidence that Alaska’s elections weren’t already secure.

“We understand this is a process and a conversation we all want to participate in. We ensure that local governments can run their own elections,” he said. “I hope we can work through this and respond to data and evidence along the way.”

Shower said his bill is meant as a starting point to have a conversation about election security in Alaska. Provisions in the bill could easily change and exemptions could be made for communities with unique circumstances, he said. Questions about election security are not a partisan issue Shower said, pointing to allegations of election fraud from 2016.

Shower also cited a data breach in December in which 113,000 Alaskans’ voter information was exposed as a reason for stepping up the state’s election security. That breach was of Alaska’s voter registration information, DOE said at the time, and not of the state’s election results system.

“There is generally a shaken confidence in our election system, this is to try to restore faith in our election system,” he said. “Clearly, we are going to talk about the philosophical and other elements of it as we go on.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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