A sign designates a vote center at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library on Oct. 5, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

A sign designates a vote center at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library on Oct. 5, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Opinion: The lost joys of in-person voting

For the second year in a row, voting was an anti-climactic, diminished experience.

  • Wednesday, October 6, 2021 12:49pm
  • Opinion

By Paulette Simpson

I’m writing this on Oct. 6. Yesterday was election day. Except it wasn’t election day in Juneau.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful article titled, “The Joy (and Ritual) of Voting.” It’s worth a look: https://theharwoodinstitute.org/richs-blog-posts/2012/11/the-joy-and-ritual-of-voting.

In 1977, I registered to vote in Juneau. Yesterday would have been my 44th opportunity to vote in our municipal election, in person, on the first Tuesday in October. Instead, shortly after receiving my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I filled it out and dropped it in the box at the Douglas Library – the same place where Douglas precinct voters would be cheerfully greeted, often by name, by the loyal cadre of local election workers.

Somehow, Ketchikan, Kenai, Skagway, Haines and Fairbanks, and many other Alaska municipalities figured out a way to safely conduct in-person elections. Those communities will know which candidates and propositions prevailed days before Juneau does.

Last year, because of COVID concerns, our Assembly decided that vote-by-mail was the safest way to proceed. So, the CBJ contracted out our 2020 election to the Municipality of Anchorage to tabulate Juneau’s mail-in ballots. In April, the Assembly decided to again pay the MoA to handle our 2021 mail-in election.

In mid-September, Juneau’s Assembly institutionalized their decision by spending $700,000 to remodel a warehouse for use as a permanent mail-in voting center for all future municipal elections.

We’ve been told that this new system will produce greater voter participation, and be safer, “secure and fraud-free.”

I’m not quite sure how anyone can guarantee the “secure and fraud-free” claims, but that’s not the source of my angst.

For the second year in a row, voting was an anti-climactic, diminished experience.

Regardless of the issue, human beings of every political persuasion value the opportunity to make their own choices. Prior to the CBJ Assembly’s abolition of in-person voting, Juneau voters were empowered to select a voting method of their choice

We could vote absentee, or two weeks early at locations in the Valley and downtown or show up at our assigned polling locations where we’d present ID and sign the register. After entering the curtained booth to vote in private, we’d feed our ballots into the vote-counting machine. Simple, secure, deeply satisfying, and transparent.

We’d be told “thank you for voting” and be given an “I have voted” sticker to validate our participation.

There are good reasons for a system that encourages a community to show up in the public square to voice an opinion and, yes, join neighbors at polling stations to vote. It’s not outdated or old fashioned — it’s timeless. Should anyone wonder why the two polarized ends of America’s political spectrum are getting more strident and spiteful, Juneau’s impersonal and disconnected voting system isn’t likely to help increase trust in our government or each other.

It’s also fair to ask what we’ve lost as a community by abandoning one of our country’s most cherished, collective acts of participatory democracy.

The way it all came down was so cold and cavalier. Did anyone on our august Assembly ponder the value of communal civic engagement or the unifying aspects of the annual in-person ritual they canceled?

Especially after months of COVID-induced cocooning, could they not perceive the importance of offering residents the option to re-connect with fellow citizens at the polls?

In 2022, the state of Alaska will conduct in-person voting for our primary and general elections, with absentee voting available for those who physically cannot make it to the polls. And, as has been the case for years, both at the state and municipal level, in addition to absentee voting, in-person early voting, vote by fax or vote by online delivery will be available as well.

The 39th annual Juneau Public Market is scheduled to happen in-person over Thanksgiving weekend. Their website reminds us that, “…the Public Market is a treasured social experience.”

For some of us, so was voting.

The first Tuesday in October could have continued as a mini celebration of local democracy. Instead, municipal election day in Alaska’s capital city is now just another day of the week.

• Paulette Simpson is a longtime voter. Simpson lives in Douglas.

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