On Monday night, City and Borough of Juneau Assembly decided to hold the October 2021 election using a pure vote-by-mail method. You likely remember that we held a similar election last year.
During the pandemic, that was the right thing to do as a public health measure. However, assembly members now assert that the higher turnout in the previous election is a justification for continuing the process indefinitely. While there is nothing wrong with a vote-by-mail election, it’s a significant policy shift that should involve considerably more public involvement than we’ve seen so far.
In case you aren’t familiar, a regular election includes two weeks of early voting and a no-cause mail-in ballot for an entire month before the election. There is absolutely no issue with voter access. What the assembly is proposing now is that we get rid of the precinct polling places altogether and send ballots to every registered voter, regardless of whether they requested a ballot or not.
In the 2021 election, the city mailed 27,789 ballots to houses all over the world. 11,875 came back. We have no idea where the other 15,914 ballots are and we wasted the printing and postage cost in the process. By the city’s estimate, by-mail voting will cost about $200,000 per year more than a regular election, plus another $500,000 in equipment and renovation costs. The implication here is that if we want to mail ballots to everyone, without them making a request, it comes at the expense of two teachers or police officers. That seems like an important discussion to me.
Beyond the cost, the last election sparked a considerable amount of distrust in our democratic election system. We need to restore that trust through transparency and public involvement. That is what is most disturbing about the comments made last Monday night. By a vote of 2-7, the assembly would not even give Assembly member Wade Bryson the power to discuss an advisory vote with the city attorney. While the assembly stated that they would include the public, the fact is that they ignored the fact that 100% of the public testimony on their action was in opposition to the way they voted.
There is no purer form of public involvement than direct democracy. Why then is the assembly afraid of allowing the public the opportunity to be fully engaged in the decision of fundamentally changing our election process? Isn’t it a little bit ironic that the same members that claim that their votes for a mail-in election are to increase civic engagement yet also state that the public shouldn’t be allowed to actually vote on the issue so critically important?
Please encourage our assembly to reconsider their decision. Let’s allow the community to decide how we want our future elections to be run. An advisory vote is a costless way to restore public trust through maximum public involvement. There is absolutely no downside to allowing this vote to occur unless there is fear around the outcome of such a vote. I encourage all of us to get more involved in the public process by asking the Assembly to let us vote. Seeing as that is the stated goal by the seven majority members denying that right, I certainly hope they reconsider.
• Ed King is a Juneau resident. This opinion piece is submitted without any affiliation to any organization or group..