(Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Does vote-by-mail work? It’s time for a second look

Voting last week in Juneau’s “rolling” municipal election seemed more like a chore that needed to get done instead of the patriotic civic-minded custom I was taught to revere.

When the Juneau Assembly ditched our tried-and-true voting system, they opted for something that robbed us of the opportunity to come together in our neighborhood precincts to participate collectively in democracy.

It’s been a short and slippery slope.

First came the pandemic. We were told we couldn’t gather in enclosed spaces, once a year, even for a few minutes, to greet our neighbors, mark our ballot, and personally insert it in the vote-counting machine. This apparently wasn’t as important as going to liquor stores or bars — all of which remained open 365 days a year.

But we complied. In 2020, the Assembly told us vote-by-mail (VBM) was only temporary, implying that once the emergency was over, we could return to in-person voting. Then, this year, with little fanfare, despite the vastly increased cost and citizen opposition, the Assembly decreed VBM permanent.

Our Assembly has continued to insist that VBM makes voting more convenient, guarantees that every vote is counted, and increases voter turnout.

Regrettably, that hasn’t been borne out by the facts.

After receiving my ballot packet in the mail and opening it, I found a ballot, a security sleeve, a return envelope, and two pages of instructions on how to fill out my ballot, sign it, verify my identity, insert my ballot in the sleeve and envelope, seal it, apply postage, and then deliver it to the proper place. Inadvertently omitting one of these steps runs the risk of your ballot being invalidated.

There’s also a warning in bold red letters that your ballot must be postmarked on or before election day when mailed. In 2021’s election, almost 8% of ballots were invalidated for various reasons, 352 of them for missing postmarks. For that reason, city officials have cautioned people concerned about this to personally take their ballot to the post office to have it postmarked. Other non-mail options include using drop boxes in Auke Bay or Douglas and dropping off your ballot, or voting in-person at either the Mendenhall Valley Public Library or City Hall.

None of the alternative options offered are more convenient than traditional voting in-person at your precinct on election day. Considering all the extra pieces of paper and steps involved, VBM is actually less reliable since mistakes may happen that would easily be caught by helpful poll workers in a traditional in-person election.

Furthermore, voter turnout has not increased. Except for the 43% voter turnout in 2020, when VBM was a novelty, turnout the last two years has been virtually identical to the 31% who voted in 2019, our last traditional election.

A total of 27,767 ballot packets were printed and mailed to Juneau voters this year. Barely a third of those will be returned.

So why did taxpayers get stuck with $1 million to establish this system with an annual cost that is several hundred thousand dollars more than in-person voting?

Moreover, when voting in-person now, your ballot isn’t as private. Regardless of how you deliver your VBM signed ballot envelope, ultimately it’s handled by many people with your identity still attached before being counted. You no longer have the option of marking a secret ballot in a voting booth and having it anonymously counted by machine while you watch.

Expanding election day to “election weeks” while sometimes waiting days or weeks for conclusive results, undermines the transparency of elections and diminishes the ritual and importance of voting.

On a positive note, Mayor Beth Weldon and Assemblymember Wade Bryson voted against the change to VBM this year.

Weldon said she “tolerated” VBM during the pandemic, but thought it’s important for people to all come together on one day to vote. “I feel that election day is kind of sacred,” she said. “By voting by mail, I think we’ve taken some of the emphasis off of how wonderful it is to go out and vote.”

When the new Assembly is seated, its most important item of business should be to restore the trust and respect our electoral process deserves.

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. 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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