FAIRBANKS — Voting in Fairbanks North Star Borough elections would happen at the kitchen table instead of the voting booth if the assembly adopts a new proposal next month.
Assemblymen Lance Roberts and Karl Kassel are behind an ordinance to change the manner of voting in borough elections to mail-in ballots. They hope to increase voter participation.
“Voter participation within the borough is not the greatest,” Kassel said. “I am hoping that we can get more people to participate by making it easier for them.”
The number of voters in the 2014 borough election was 11,456, down from 17,091 in 2011, according to municipal clerk Nanci Ashford-Bingham. 2013 also was a year of low turnout with only 9,828 ballots cast.
How the new voting system would work, per Ordinance No. 2015-25, is ballots would be mailed out about two weeks before Election Day. They could be mailed back or deposited at any place designated by the borough clerk.
Ballots would need to be returned by 8 p.m. on the day of the election or postmarked on or before Election Day.
Voters would need to provide their voter registration number, social security number or their date of birth plus the signature of a witness age 18 or older on the mail-in ballots.
The ordinance will be discussed at a work session on June 4 and is scheduled for a public hearing on June 11.
Ashford-Bingham said mail-in voting is being talked about among members of the Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks.
It’s more expensive, but that’s because of an expected boost in the number of ballots to deal with, according to the clerk.
For example, if voter turnout increased from 17 percent, which was turnout at the last municipal election, to 33 percent, the cost per vote would change from $9.09 per vote to $8.11 per vote. The overall cost to run the municipal election would rise from $104,130 to $185,849, according to the clerk.
If approved, the new voting method would go into effect in 2016.
The borough clerk said ballots received by mail would be processed in the same manner as the tens of thousands of ballots that were mailed, faxed, cast earlier than Election Day or questioned during the Nov. 4, 2014, state election.
“It’s the same process that is currently being used for absentee voting,”
Voting by mail was floated to the voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where some remote communities already handle elections by mail, and soundly reject at the ballot box last October.
Kenai municipal clerk Johni Blankenship said people were worried about ballot security and voters being unduly influenced by other members of their household while filling out a ballot at home versus alone in a voting both.
“What was interesting about it is that it passed with flying colors in all of the current by-mail precincts,” Blankenship said.
All elections in the state of Oregon are handled primarily by mail with great success, according to Mike McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties.
The state adopted voting by mail in the mid-1990s, McArthur said.
“What drove it was the notion that we would get better participation,” McArthur said. “That has proven to be true. More people vote this way.”
In Oregon, ballots are mailed two weeks before an election. They can be mailed back or placed in ballot drop boxes. McArthur said a few voting booths are still available to people who want to vote that way.
McArthur has voted at the voting booth and at his kitchen table. He prefers the latter because he can look up issues on his computer while filling out his ballot.
“I used to get in the polling place and say, ‘Gee, I didn’t research this measure. I don’t know what to do.’ Now I can look it up. I can take my time and study my ballot,” he said.
Voting by mail changes the pace of political campaigns, which tend to peak on Election Day. McArthur said that in Oregon, the political campaigns start to peak two weeks before Election Day when the ballots are mailed.
“By the time people get their ballots, you want to have your campaign crescendoing,” he said.
Borough Assembly members generally like the idea of voting by mail, but have questions.
“The way I see it is kind of an expansion of absentee and early voting,” Assemblyman John Davies said. “I think anything that makes it easier for people to actually participate is a good thing. It would make sense perhaps to phase it in.”
Assemblyman Van Lawrence said he would also support the new voting style if it would increase voter participation in borough.
Lawrence suggested another way to increase the number of borough voters: change the date of municipal elections to coincide with state and national elections.
Municipal elections take place in October, a month before state and national general elections.
Assemblywoman Diane Hutchison said she would probably support voting by mail, so long as there were a few voting booths available to people who enjoy the ritual, but she is worried about security with mail-in voting.
“Things get stolen out of mailboxes,” Hutchison said. “I am for anything that would increase voter turnout, but I want to make sure people don’t get hurt along the way.”
Assemblyman Lance Roberts, a sponsor of the ordinance, said he has talked with people who don’t vote in municipal elections “because they forgot or it wasn’t convenient for any number of reasons.
“People forget about the local elections or they just don’t want to go to the polls,” Roberts said.
Voting by mail would also help with voter participation during years when bad weather happens on Election Day, the assemblyman said.
“The bottom line is, the world is kind of moving this way,” Roberts said. “People are looking for more convenience.”
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587.