Claire Richardson served in two Administrations and retired in 2018 after serving as Chief of Staff to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. (Courtesy Photo / Claire Richardson)

Claire Richardson served in two Administrations and retired in 2018 after serving as Chief of Staff to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. (Courtesy Photo / Claire Richardson)

Opinion: CARES Act funding should be used to make Alaska elections safer and more accessible

I think most Alaskans agree that a cornerstone of our democracy is our right to vote.

  • Monday, August 17, 2020 11:47am
  • Opinion

I think most Alaskans agree that a cornerstone of our democracy is our right to vote. In this turbulent pandemic time across our state, providing absentee ballots for Alaskans so they can safely vote early at home is more important than ever.

Using federal dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the Governor’s Office said in May that Alaska’s COVID-19 Response Fund, included $3 million in elections support, and further noted “funds are used to support modifications to the current elections process in light of the COVID-19 public health crisis.”

With additional funding in hand for months, there are important actions Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections, should have implemented to improve voter safety and accessibility.

[Where to vote in Juneau]

Postage-Paid Absentee Ballot Return Envelopes

Lt. Gov. Meyer could have removed an additional hurdle to democracy this year by not requiring voters to pay postage to mail back completed absentee ballot. This problem hit home for me when a 69-year-old disabled friend expressed concern about leaving her apartment to walk to the post office or store to purchase a stamp. She falls into the high-risk category for COVID-19 and with no car and living alone, remains isolated. How many other Alaskans face similar pandemic roadblocks?

COVID-19-response funds already earmarked for elections should include postage-paid return envelopes for the Nov. 3 General Election Absentee Ballots. The cost of a 55-cent stamp will be paid by the federal government and would help both rural and urban voters who might struggle to not only find a required witness, but also risk their health by entering post offices or other venues that sell stamps.

There are more than a dozen states, both red and blue, that are providing postage paid return envelopes, including Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, Missouri, Nevada and California. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, announced two years ago that the state would pay the postage for all ballots in the general and primary elections saying, “This is about leveling the playing field and making elections equal for all citizens of Washington State.”

Secure Absentee Ballot Return Drop boxes

With the continued increase in absentee voting statewide over the past decade, and Anchorage transitioning to vote-by-mail, it appears that many voters feel more confident if they personally drop their absentee ballot into a secured voter drop box rather than post it. Lt. Gov. Meyer is providing only four 24-hour access boxes, one each in Wasilla, Soldotna, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Here in Juneau, the only option for the primary absentee ballot return is to walk into the Mendenhall Valley election’s office and only 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Why do some urban voters have 24/7 access and others in rural and urban areas are limited?

The $3 million already appropriated to the Division if Elections should help defray the cost of providing 24-hour access to State of Alaska drop boxes from Utqiagvik to Ketchikan in the general election so that all voters have equal, safe access options.

[Voting is going to look a lot different this year]

Voter awareness: “I Voted” facemasks

As you recall, the unique, fun, engaging “I Voted” stickers designed by Alaska artist Pat Race and produced for early voters in the 2018 election garnered state and national attention and more importantly, increased positive awareness about the election and voting. I applaud the Division of Elections continuing to provide multi-language stickers for the November General Election. I encourage Lt. Gov. Meyer to have the “I Voted” design printed on face masks so that voters, election workers and volunteers have an added layer of protection and proudly signal to fellow Alaskans that they have exercised their right to vote.

We have the resources to make voting safer and more accessible for all of Alaska’s voters in 2020. Lets use them.

Our democracy depends on it.

• Claire Richardson served in two Administrations and retired in 2018 after serving as Chief of Staff to Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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