While Americans these days are divided about many things, there can be no dispute — nor has there ever been — about the critical importance of voting in our democracy. Ronald Reagan called it “the most sacred right of free men and women” in his 1981 statement urging extension of the Voting Rights Act. And John F. Kennedy, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, noted that while “not everyone can serve in our armed forces, there is one way you can indicate your devotion to freedom — by voting.”
But before a citizen can vote, he or she must be registered to vote. And in Alaska, failure to register means that every year tens of thousands of Alaskans — estimates range from about 45,000 to over 70,000 — are unable to exercise this “most sacred right of free men and women.” Is there a way to make registration to vote simpler, less costly and more available to all Alaskans? There is, and in the next month Alaskans can take an important step toward making this happen.
Until the start of the next legislative session, Alaskans can sign the petition to put on the next ballot the “PFD Voter Initiative” — a provision that would allow every Alaskan applying for a Permanent Fund Dividend to become registered to vote by the act of applying for the dividend. If this initiative becomes law, it would be unnecessary for a citizen desiring to register to vote to obtain a paper application, fill it out and send it physically to the State Division of Elections. The citizen would be able to allow the information contained in his or her PFD application to be forwarded to the State Division of Elections and serve as the basis for voter registration. Given the efficiencies inherent in a system that uses one list rather than two separate lists, the PFD Voter Initiative will save the state substantial amounts once the new system is in place.
The drafters of the initiative have carefully considered both the fundamentals of the PFD and voter registration, and have protected both. Thus, the initiative does not change anything in the PFD application process (citizens may continue to apply via paper application or online), nor does it require any new action of citizens (for example, a PFD applicant who for whatever reason does not wish to register to vote via the PFD application can decline voter registration), nor does it require PFD recipients to vote. The initiative will not affect the Permanent Fund Dividend. It simply makes it simpler for the citizen to register, and less costly (and more accurate) for the state to register the citizen.
Among the advantages of this initiative is its contribution to solving a problem that has divided the political parties with regard to voting: the issue of voter fraud. Those supporting voter-ID requirements have argued that such requirements are necessary to combat voter fraud. Those opposing such requirements have argued that fraud is almost nonexistent and that the requirements serve to suppress the vote. The PFD Voter Initiative resolves this conflict by utilizing a resource we already have — the Permanent Fund Division’s already-existing determination of eligibility for the dividend. If a person meets the PFD Division’s exacting scrutiny, there is no question of voter fraud. Not only does the PFD Voter Initiative solve this vexing problem, but it does so by utilizing resources that we already have.
The advantages — to democracy, to citizens, to state government efficiency — are numerous. As Presidents Kennedy and Reagan noted, voting is a fundamental right that is critical to a functioning democracy. Any change in bureaucratic regulations that makes it easier for citizens to vote is a benefit to our democracy and to our citizens. And a change that reduces cost of government would be beneficial for all.
I urge every Alaskan to investigate the PFD Voter Initiative. You can do so by going to www.pfdvoter.com and reviewing the language of the initiative, a summary of how it works, Frequently Asked Questions about it and similar materials. If, after your review, you agree with me that the PFD Voter Initiative is a common sense improvement to our voter registration system, I hope that you will sign the petition to put it on the ballot and urge family and friends to do the same. In this way we would all do our part to bring to life this “most sacred right of free men and women.”
• Walter (Bud) Carpeneti retired in 2013 after 32 years as an Alaska judge, including the last 15 as a justice of the Supreme Court of Alaska and the last three as chief justice. The views expressed in this article are his alone.