After the tumult of the most recent election season, is bipartisan voting rights legislation still possible in America? The outlook isn’t good. A Pew study shows the divide over election policy has worsened. Former President Trump’s lies about voter fraud in 2020 won over many Republicans. Independents and Democrats tended not to be fooled; they were far more alarmed by pro-Trump conspiracy theorists violently storming the US Capitol. Now each party, believing the fate of our democracy is at stake, is more determined than ever to advance their vision of how Americans should vote.
All Americans should have equitable access to the ballot box. But conventional political wisdom assumes Republicans benefit from limiting voting access for people they believe are more likely to vote for Democrats, including people of color, recent immigrants, young people, and the economically disadvantaged. On the other hand, Democrats supposedly benefit from including them all. And so, we have one party incentivized to help eligible voters vote, and one incentivized to block certain demographic groups. The politicization of election administration is especially fierce in 2021, with more than a thousand pro-voter and anti-voter election bills introduced in state legislatures and Congress. GOP lawmakers recently passed voter suppression laws in three swing states: Georgia, Florida, and Arizona. Other states, including Montana, Massachusetts, and Virginia, passed pro-voter laws in 2021.
A sensible combination of the two bills could give us election laws that treat Alaska voters like customers, not criminals.
In Alaska, lawmakers have laid the foundation for both parties to put the interests of the electorate ahead of partisanship. A bill in the House, sponsored by Democrats, would make absentee voting more convenient. Another bill, backed by a Senate Republican, seeks to restore faith in elections. Neither bill made it to the floor in the 2021 session of the Alaska Legislature, but they’re both teed up for next time. A sensible combination of the two could give us election laws that treat Alaska voters like customers, not criminals. Let’s hope the legislature can get this done in time for the primary in August 2022.
Alaska’s Pro-Voter House Bill
For all the news about anti-voter bills circulating in state legislatures, lawmakers have actually introduced hundreds of pro-voter bills as well. House Bill 66 (HB66) is one of them. Sponsors Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, recognize that widespread voter participation is fundamental to a strong democracy. “My goal with this bill is straightforward, to remove barriers to the ballot box at every stage of our elections,” Tuck said in a press release on January 15.
Tuck pointed out that absentee voting was critical in helping more than 361,000 Alaskans—a record high—turn out to vote during a pandemic. “Why did so many people vote? I think the answer is crystal clear; vote by mail made it easy,” he said. Nearly 99,000 Alaska voters applied for a ballot to be sent to their homes and returned it through the mail or secure drop boxes. That was up from about 27,500 in the previous presidential election in 2016, according to statistics from the Alaska Division of Elections. (States have different terminology for the act of depositing ballots in drop boxes or sending them through the mail. Alaska calls it “By-Mail Delivery.” To simplify, this article refers to it as “absentee voting.”)
In the past, absentee voting was a niche voting method used primarily by Alaskans located out of state, such as those in the military or in college. Now that more Alaskans have experienced absentee voting in statewide elections and local elections in Anchorage and Juneau, it may well remain popular in the future.
HB66 contains several of Sightline’s recommendations for making Alaska’s absentee voting process even more convenient and secure:
- Give voters a cure process: A voter who made mistakes on their absentee ballot envelopes could fix the problem and have their vote count rather than having their ballot tossed out.
- Drop the witness requirement: Voters would no longer need to have a witness sign their ballot. The state doesn’t verify the authenticity of witness signatures, but does toss out ballots without one.
- Set up “one and done” absentee voter sign-up: Alaskans would only need to sign up once to receive absentee ballots for all statewide elections, rather than signing up every year.
- Count absentee ballots sooner: The Division of Elections would start counting absentee ballots no fewer than seven days before Election Day.
- Provide postage pre-paid return envelopes: Voters without a secure drop box nearby wouldn’t be hindered by searching for a stamp. They could drop the provided return envelope straight in the mail.
HB66 also includes minimum compensation for election workers; allows voters to use electronic signatures when registering, strengthens language in support of in-person early voting; and allows people who have recently moved to a municipality, but have not registered to vote with the state under their new address to vote.
Cherry-Picking Good Ideas from the Senate Bill
Meanwhile, a bill in the Senate is more of a mixed bag. Senate Bill 39 (SB39) is overly prescriptive in some areas of election administration and in other areas appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, is well aware that the levels of voter fraud in Alaska over the course of many election cycles have been extremely low to nonexistent. Other Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees the Division of Elections, have verified that voter fraud in Alaska is low. After the 2020 election, Meyer said the process was “conducted fairly and without any trace of fraud.” But Shower’s conservative constituents are not convinced, despite Trump’s 53-43 percent win over Biden in Alaska. To placate them, his bill in some ways would make voting harder and complicate the process of managing Alaska’s elections, moves that could actually hurt the very demographic demanding these changes.
For example, SB39 requires voters and witnesses to provide even more personal information, a move that would undoubtedly disenfranchise more voters without actually improving election security. It also requires all police cadets in Alaska to receive at least four hours of instruction in detecting and investigating election fraud before they can pass the probationary period, even though it is elections officials, not police, who inspect voter IDs and ballots. SB39 would also direct the Division of Elections to check voter records using a defunct program started in Kansas called Crosscheck, which was shut down in a federal lawsuit due to improper disclosure of voters’ personal information and high error rates. (Crosscheck has not operated for years, so Alaska would not be able to participate anyway.)
Still, SB39 contains some sensible proposals that, when combined with HB66 and Alaska’s existing election laws and regulations, would truly make it easy to vote and hard to cheat:
- Give voters a cure process: When introducing the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Shower said, “Voters should know when their ballots are being questioned or rejected and be informed of that immediately.” Hear, hear.
- Allow for longer-term registration to receive absentee ballots by mail: Voters could register to receive absentee ballots at home every year for four years. While not as efficient as permanent absentee ballot registration, this would be an improvement on the current policy requiring voters to re-register for absentee ballots every year.
- Establish a tracking system for absentee ballots: Intelligent mail barcodes would allow absentee voters and election officials to track their ballot and get live updates when the Division of Election mails it out, when the voter receives it, when the Division receives it, whether they find any problems with it, and when it is counted. Many other states are doing this, why can’t we?
- Check voter registration records using the Electronic Registration Information Center: Alaska is one of 31 states belonging to ERIC, a legitimate program for keeping voter lists clean and accurate. Using ERIC, states can remove from their rolls voters who have passed away, moved, or registered to vote in another state, or update the addresses of those who moved within Alaska.
- Audit the master vote list: A biennial third-party audit of the master voter list would ensure Alaska is using the best available information sources to keep voter lists up-to-date.
SB39 got off to a rocky start. More than halfway through the 2021 legislative session, Shower’s staff almost wholly rewrote it and reintroduced a new version to Senate State Affairs on April 15. State Affairs then passed the new version on to the Judiciary Committee on May 4. The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he had no plans to pass the bill out of committee before the session ends in late May.
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The inclusion of pro-voter measures in Shower’s bill points to the potential for bipartisan support, a point Shower and his staff have made repeatedly. “We’re working closely with Rep. Tuck on areas we may be able to agree upon. Most likely we’ll end up with some blend between the two bills. It’s got a long way to go,” Shower said during a recent hearing on the bill.
(Shower is a freshman senator who won his seat handily in 2018, with about 75 percent of the vote in District E, an area that includes the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Copper River Valley. His only opponent in the general election was Susan Kay, a Democrat. Under ranked choice voting, a Shower victory in 2022, while still very possible, is no longer an inevitable blowout. Bipartisan compromise may help Shower, particularly if he faces a Republican who hews closer to the center.)
For a more perfect union, perfect our voting systems
Oddly, our American impulse to have it all does not appear to apply to elections. But why not? Why can’t we have the most convenient, inclusive, and secure election systems in the entire world?
Oddly, our American impulse to have it all does not appear to apply to elections. But why not? Why can’t we have the most convenient, inclusive, and secure election systems in the entire world? Using the best ideas from Republicans and Democrats, Alaska has the opportunity in the 2022 legislative session to stand as an exception to the divided politics of election administration and create a winning bipartisan mashup on pro-voter election reform.
The desire by politicians to pick and choose voters is at the heart of the fight over election laws. But the reflexive tendency to assume that more accessible elections helps Democrats—and more restrictive practices help Republicans—is not based on solid data. For example, Arizona and Florida previously made absentee voting easier because GOP leaders believed it helped their voters, who tended to be older and found it difficult to get to a polling place and stand for long periods. Trump—himself an absentee voter—railed against it, so GOP lawmakers are making and passing laws to limit it. Will that ultimately hurt more Republican voters or more Democratic ones? It’s hard to say.
“The reality is that election laws are complicated and incentivize voter behavior in complex ways that are context-dependent,” writes Robert Griffin, research director of the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. “This makes it very difficult to predict precisely who would benefit from a given overhaul—if anyone at all.”
In the face of such uncertainty, the least risky course for both parties is to create a process that gives every American the freedom to easily vote. Hobbling your own voters is no way to win. And ideally, in elections, the rulebook shouldn’t be the focus of competition. Rather, the quality of play itself—how skilled each lawmaker is in crafting policy for the greater good—should determine the victors.