Empire Editorial: To boost voter turnout, Juneau should look to online elections

  • Thursday, October 8, 2015 1:07am
  • Opinion

On Tuesday night, too few Juneauites went to the polls.

In Wednesday’s Empire, we published a My Turn from a group of young Alaskans backing a voter initiative that would allow anyone who applies for a Permanent Fund Dividend to instantly register to vote.

We support their effort and the initiative, but the problem facing us isn’t one of registration.

Just 18 percent of our borough’s residents bothered to cast their ballots in an election that determined Juneau’s mayor, two council seats and much of the school board.

This is unacceptable.

More people attended this year’s Southeast Alaska State Fair than expressed their opinion on the people who will drive our government for the next several years.

We’ve been told that about 1,400 absentee and questioned ballots will be added to the total on Friday, but if that figure is accurate, it will only boost turnout to 23.6 percent — the fourth-lowest since 1985.

City figures show 24,650 Juneauites are eligible to vote in the borough. If you consider the proportion of our population younger than age 18, the vast majority of eligible adults are already registered.

No, our problem is one of participation. We need to make it easier to vote, not just register.

In 1998, Oregon voters passed a measure setting up a vote-by-mail system. Since 2000, when the system began working, Oregon has consistently ranked among the nation’s leaders in voter turnout.

Juneau should consider this system to boost turnout. However, we believe the city and borough should also consider a 21st-century solution: Online voting.

Since 2005, the small European nation of Latvia has allowed its population to cast ballots online. In its March 2015 parliamentary elections, 64.2 percent of registered voters (almost 890,000 people) participated. More than 176,000 of those people cast their ballots online.

We do not believe online elections would be easy to implement, and it may be costly, but we believe it’s worth it if it means more people vote.

Imagine an elderly person stuck at home and unable to reach the polls. Imagine a harried single parent with no spare moment. Imagine the person who simply forgot.

It would be easy to dismiss online elections. Every Internet user is familiar with wildly inaccurate online polls easily swayed by mass participation. That isn’t what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about a secure, modern system on the Latvian model. It would not be new or strange — this has already been done. You don’t think twice about filing your taxes or for your Permanent Fund Dividend online. You trust that those systems are safe and secure, and you rely on them. Elections can function the same way, given enough time and preparation.

We do not believe traditional polling places will instantly go away. There are plenty of people who do not own computers or are so uncomfortable with them that they would prefer the comfort of a voting booth.

Instead, we believe the City and Borough of Juneau should start the process of planning and creating an online voting system. It will take years to research and develop such a process, but we believe it can be done, and it should be started now.

It would not encompass national or state elections, merely local ones. The authority to operate local elections rests with the borough, not the state, and it is well within the borough’s authority to consider this approach.

We ask the City and Borough Assembly to create a special committee to study this idea, with the goal of implementing it by 2020, Juneau’s 140th birthday.

If we want to improve voter turnout and not simply talk about the issue, we must approach the problem with a modern solution. As computers become ever more integral to our lives, there is no question whether online voting is coming. It is only a question of when.

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