FILED FOR PFD WITH DIFFERENT ADDRESS? YOU MAY BE VOTING A QUESTIONED BALLOT
It’s not hundreds of voter addresses that were changed by the Division of Elections without the knowledge of voters.
It’s thousands — tens of thousands. In fact, just under 15 percent of the entire voting population of 567,403 have had their addresses changed by Elections.
An analysis of the July voter files compared to the similar batch of files from March show that some 84,000 Alaska voters have been assigned new addresses by the Elections Division. Most of them without their knowledge or consent.
Some of those address changes will be accurate. Others will have simply “moved” voters into districts where they don’t live and don’t vote.
Take the example of the fisherman in Naknek who lives is Anchorage some of the year, and uses that city address for his Permanent Fund dividend, but likes to vote in Bristol Bay, where his real interests as an Alaskan are.
Or the student at University of Alaska Fairbanks, who wants to vote in Fairbanks but gets her Permanent Fund dividend in Ninilchik. The Division of Elections has moved both of these individuals to voting in their PFD address’ district.
That 84,000 changed addresses represents a 500-600 percent increase from recent years, according to an analysis by David Nees, researcher at Alaska Policy Forum.
The matter came to light in a Must Read Alaska report about candidate Aaron Weaver, District 15, who is running for State House and discovered the State Elections Division had assigned him to District 20, which would make him ineligible to run or vote in District 15.
It was clearly a mistake, and it took a trip to the Elections office on Gambell Street in Anchorage for Weaver to sort it out. Must Read Alaska began hearing from dozens of other voters whose registrations were changed by the Elections Division. For some, it wasn’t a problem, because they keep a Post Office box in their voting district. But most do not, and with seasonal workers, this is a major headache that most haven’t learned about. They’ll find out when they try to vote.
DIVISION OF ELECTIONS RESPONDS
Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke responded to a query from the Alaska Republican Party about the number of voters having been re-registered by the division into districts where they do not live.
Bahnke said the division sent notices to voters and it’s the responsibility of the voters to review the information and correct it, if they feel it is wrong.
Bahnke tried to explain how it happened in a two-page letter to the Alaska Republican Party:
“As you know, Alaska voters approved the PFD AVR (Permanent Fund dividend automatic voter registration) ballot initiative in November 2016, which amended sections of Alaska Statute Title 15 and Title 43,” Bahnke wrote. The ballot measure instructed the state to use the Permanent Fund Dividend application to automatically register people to vote and ensure the voter registration information is current. The law requires the automatic registration of eligible Alaskans to vote when they apply for their PFD.”
Unless they opt out, of course. Opting out is not intuitive, nor is it necessarily easy. You have to really watch your mail to know if the Division of Elections has reassigned you. Why would the State do such a thing? Most voters cannot imagine the government taking it in its own hands to reassign your voting address.
“The Division of Elections (“Division”) is simply implementing this law,” Bahnke wrote. “The Division is aware that voters’ registration information was updated if they made changes to their residence address through the PFD application process. As required by the law, the Division sent out opt-out notices in the mail to voters whose address on their PFD application was different from their voter record address, or to applicants who were not currently registered to vote.”
The opt-out notices may have languished in post office boxes or could have easily been mistaken as junk mail. Tuckerman Babcock of the Republican Party says this brings into question whether the Voting Rights Act is being violated by the Division of Elections. Should the government be allowed to change voting addresses without people’s permission?
Babcock says the entire process is not what was intended by voters who approved the Automatic Voter Registration initiative. Voters, in information pushed by the groups wanting the law to pass, were told that only unregistered voters would be automatically registered as voters under the new law and that they could easily opt out. Voters were not told that everyone would be assigned an official voting address that would need to correspond to the address they use on their PFD application.
But Bahnke says it’s the responsibility of the PFD recipient to make sure their voter registration information is still accurate:
“The mailer notified Alaskans that the information on their PFD application would be used to update their voter registration or register them to vote unless they opted out by declining the registration opportunity within 30 days. Voters who did not respond to the opt—out notice, were registered or had their voter registration record updated based on information they provided on their Permanent Fund Dividend application, as required by the law.”
Bahnke noted that the law reads: “the director shall, as soon as practicable and in accordance with a schedule established by the director by rule, notify by United States mail and any other means authorized by the director, each applicant not already registered to vote at the address provided in the applicant’s application (1) of the processes to (A) decline to be registered as a voter; (B) maintain an existing voter registration or be newly registered at a valid place of residence not provided in the applicant’s application; and (C) adopt a political party affiliation; and (2) that failure to respond to the notification shall constitute the applicant’s consent to cancel any registration to vote in another jurisdiction. (I) If an applicant does not decline to be registered as a voter within 30 calendar days after the director issues the notification, the application under AS 43.23.015 will constitute a completed registration form. The name of the applicant shall be placed on the master register if the director determines that the person is qualified to vote under AS 15.05.010, and the director shall forward to the applicant a registration card. If registration is denied, the applicant shall immediately be informed in writing that registration was denied and the reason for denial.”
The deadline for voters to register or update their registration for the Aug. 21, Primary Election was on July 22.
Bahnke says the division is instructing voters who didn’t want their registration to be updated for the Primary to vote a questioned ballot at their polling place, and their ballot will be reviewed by a Regional Review Board following Primary Election Day.
According to Nees, it looks like about half of the 84,000 reassigned voters will end up being legitimate changes, but that still leaves some 40,000 or more that may not be correct.
And that is a very big concern. Having tens of thousands of additional voters casting a questioned ballot could clog up the polls on Election Day, and having the delayed results of elections could take days in some close races.
The questioned ballots that would need to be evaluated would require ballot counting watchers from each party to oversee the work, tying up resources that campaigns could use elsewhere in preparing for what is a very short sprint to the General Election.
“None of this was contemplated by statute,” Babcock said.
Unilaterally using one government form — a PFD application — to override all other government forms is yet another misstep in a series of troubling mistakes made by this Division of Elections in the past three years.