(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Vote-by-mail doesn’t deliver – does the Juneau Assembly care?

  • Thursday, October 28, 2021 11:02am
  • Opinion

By Win Gruening

The City and Borough of Juneau seems to be exempt from the fundamental principle that “measurement improves performance,” because, by any objective metric, their experiment with vote-by-mail has failed miserably.

Two weeks after Juneau’s second vote-by-mail municipal election concluded, election officials announced that 652 votes, an extraordinarily high number, were not counted. Over half of these votes were disallowed because they lacked postmarks – apparently because the USPS failed to stamp them when mailed. The others were missing a signature or some other validating piece of information.

This development illustrates yet another problem with vote-by-mail. When relying on a third-party, the United States Postal Service to send out ballots and return them to be counted, the likelihood for mistakes is increased. In a conventional election, in-person voters are identified and their ballots are filled out at a local polling station, then immediately fed directly into a scanner and counted. Mistakes are routinely caught at the point of origin.

The Juneau Assembly has declined to address these concerns. Perhaps the Assembly believes that citizens who question the merits of vote-by-mail are partisan, un-American, and in favor of voter-suppression? Those accusations were made recently in an opinion piece in the Juneau Empire by Kim Metcalfe, who, as a former Alaska Democratic Party Executive Committee officer and Democrat Super-Delegate, whole-heartedly endorses vote-by-mail.

In her My Turn, which was extremely critical of three carefully considered My Turns examining issues with vote-by-mail, Metcalfe alerts readers the My Turn writers are Republican and that VBM should be “applauded by people of all political persuasions rather than criticized and demeaned.” She defends mail-in voting by contending that “it gets more people to cast their votes.”

Except that it doesn’t.

It’s laudable to support efforts to increase voter turn-out – as long as such efforts actually achieve that. One would also expect the process would be efficient, and not overly cumbersome for voters. However, Juneau’s recent election experience, after sending unsolicited ballots to tens of thousands of voters, the majority of whom did not use them, failed to realize those goals.

First implemented as a temporary measure in 2020 because of pandemic protocols, the Juneau Assembly steam-rolled permanent vote-by-mail through as a necessary expenditure with minimal public input. The Assembly justified the $1 million start-up costs by telling us that VBM increases voter turn-out. As evidence, city leaders pointed to last year’s election where voter turnout was 42.7%, a sharp increase over prior municipal elections. Voter turnout was 31.4% in 2019 and 35.5% in the 2018 municipal election.

However, a recent Stanford study debunks this theory, contending that a similar voting surge in 2020 across the nation had little to do with vote-by-mail.

Yet, Juneau VBM proponents took last year’s increase as proof-positive that vote-by-mail would boost voter turn-out.

As it turns out, that didn’t happen.

With 8,517 votes counted in the Juneau 2021 election, only 30.8% of registered voters cast ballots, 28% less than last year and lower than either 2019 or 2018.

This year, the city paid to print and mail out 27,684 ballots, over 18,000 of which ended up in post office waste receptacles, residential recycle bins and the Juneau Landfill.

What is the Assembly’s response? Radio silence.

This wasteful expense is concerning enough, but taxpayers should take notice when, according to the city, the ongoing costs of conducting an election in the future could exceed $200,000 per year, triple the cost of a conventional election where voters are able to choose to vote in person or request an absentee ballot.

Furthermore, as I detailed in my column two weeks ago, the hacking of Alaska’s Online Voter Registration System along with vulnerabilities in VBM create opportunities for fraudulent ballots and “ballot harvesting” schemes that further undermine the public’s trust in our elections.

Every invalid vote – whether through honest mistake, third-party carelessness, deliberate fraud or partisan manipulation – disenfranchises a legitimate voter. The Juneau Assembly assured voters that their new election system guards against such problems and that above all, vote-by-mail would increase voter turnout.

Vote-by-mail did not deliver on that promise. It’s time for the Assembly to admit their mistake and rectify it.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank 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 and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.

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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