Win Gruening: Juneau's vote-by-mail belly-flops, so what happens next? - Must Read Alaska
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Tuesday, December 7, 2021
HomeColumnsWin Gruening: Juneau’s vote-by-mail belly-flops, so what happens next?

Win Gruening: Juneau’s vote-by-mail belly-flops, so what happens next?

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By WIN GRUENING

With every passing day, the justification for Juneau switching to universal vote-by-mail becomes murkier, more problematic, and less convincing.

Over half of the 652 ballots that were received, but not counted, were those of 357 voters that were thrown out because the post office failed to postmark their ballot envelopes.

Last week, those voters received form letters from the city clerk notifying them they were among the disenfranchised. Most, no doubt, were livid.

As detailed in my two previous columns, problems associated with Juneau’s recent VBM election have made voting more confusing and unreliable, resulting in almost 8 percent of ballots being invalidated for various reasons. VBM did not increase turn-out, as barely 30 percent of registered voters participated, 28 percent less than voted last year and below voter turn-out in past elections where in-person voting was used. 

Finally, the demonstrated lack of security of the Alaska voter database (it was hacked last year) coupled with the vulnerability of haphazard mass mailings of unsolicited ballots, has undermined people’s confidence in elections.

Voters are likely to trust vote-by-mail even less next year.

There also seems to be confusion about the actual costs of the new system.

Mayor Beth Weldon noted in a radio interview after the election that vote-by-mail elections are more expensive, $400,000 more per year than in-person elections. This is significantly more than previously reported when the Assembly studied the issue last spring. This is in addition to the estimated $700,000 for equipment and building renovations required for vote counting. 

Later, Mayor Weldon clarified her comments by providing a city staff memo that reflected a significantly lower annual operating cost. Nevertheless, the cost will exceed four times that of a conventional precinct election.

Despite Juneau’s low turn-out, during a post-election KINY interview, City Manager Rorie Watt stated the Assembly is “convinced that vote by mail is a good, long-term decision.” Mayor Beth Weldon offered this explanation for the disappointing voter turn-out: “…we didn’t have a big bond package. We didn’t have a big controversial thing. We didn’t have a vastly contested race.”  

Maybe so, but isn’t this a tacit admission that issues and candidates drive turn-out, not whether voters feel VBM is more convenient?

If that’s the case, why is the Assembly spending over one million of our tax dollars this coming year to get this misguided effort off the ground?

Some unfairly blame the Alaska Division of Elections for not keeping the database of registered voters current, thereby allowing ballots to be mailed to invalid addresses and to the names of voters who have died or moved to other states. 

But, under state law, every eligible person over the age of 18 applying for a Permanent Fund Dividend is automatically registered – whether they intend to vote or not. In addition, the Division of Elections’ annual voter list maintenance process must comply with state law (AS 15.07.130) and the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act. Voters are not required to update their registrations (and rarely do) and they cannot be removed from the voter list for simply not voting.

Annually, the Division of Elections notifies registered voters who may no longer be eligible but, by law, these voters cannot be removed or declared inactive unless they haven’t contacted DOE nor voted in any local or state election for at least four calendar years.

The 2020 census data reveals that 75.4 percent of Alaskans are 18 years or older. This results in a potential voter population of 552,976 – almost 42,000 voters fewer than are currently registered.

Barring a seismic shift in state and federal law and voters who voluntarily update their status, excessive numbers of ineligible voters will remain on active voter rolls. 

Unfortunately, city taxpayers will continue to bear the needless cost of printing and mailing ballots that will never be used. (Over 18,000 ballots were not returned in 2021 –  around 70 percent of the ballots that were mailed to voters.)

Despite evidence to the contrary, Juneau’s city leaders continue to insist that vote-by-mail was a wise expenditure. With increasing pressure on municipal finances, an uncertain economy and struggling businesses, it’s hard to understand why this initiative, with no measurable benefit, hasn’t been responsibly re-evaluated.

One can only wonder what other questionable spending is in the works. The City and Borough of Juneau is now concluding an unofficial survey of citizens about a brand-new city hall. Presumably, the results, including the comments, will be shared with the public. Following the disappointment of vote-by-mail, will a new city hall be the next “best” thing?

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. 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.

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  • Of course, the solution is so obvious, it is literally a shamefully less expensive and more secure process, is it not?

    Fully in-person voting, whilst presenting individual identification within the voting process, and unto those requesting a mail in ballot showing just cause, rather than automatically receiving a ballot, so as to participate within the voting process themselves…

    Oh, that is right…a process that prior to 2020 worked out just fine….sigh…

  • I was a registered voter in Alaska for over 36 years before relocating out of state earlier this year. The jurisdiction where I registered to vote in April (New Hanover County, North Carolina) has a mechanism for cancelling a previous registration. I later confirmed that I was no longer registered with the Alaska Division of Elections. This is not universal and therein lies a major part of the problem. We’ve discovered that lots of people have been mailed ballots by VBM municipalities and were only told after the fact that it was their responsibility to cancel their Alaska registration if their new jurisdiction didn’t do it automatically. What sort of education exists on this matter? My answer would be little or none.

  • Burn Juneau down by FIRE!!!!
    I am just kidding. Hahaha.

  • Excellent analysis Win – it just needs an explanation of how to get rid of vote-by-mail and a call to action. Thanks.

  • What happens next?

    Our Democrat/RINO lawlesslature takes note.

    The system that is so absolutely perfect – especially if you want to rig an election and suppress voting – well…..it’s just something Alaska needs statewide and needs it RIGHT NOW.

    November may be your last shot at heading them off at the pass.

    But there won’t be a shot. There’ll be silence.

    Of course it doesn’t have to be that way but recent history shows it will.

  • We must return to our traditional election process ASAP. We still run state elections that way – why have two different processes. Beyond the appalling issue of disenfranchised voter envelopes missing postmarks, we have confusion. We have ballots in the recycle/garbage cans at the post office that could be fraudulently appropriated. A candidate could ask a friend to check those cans at post offices around town, fill out and drop off what they find, and that creates real potential for a cheat to win. We need folks to request a ballot if they want to vote by mail. Early voting and absentee is totally fine. But the flood of ballots to all registered voters addresses is no bueno.

  • Juneau doesn’t care.

  • The Juneau Assembly in my opinion (whatever its worth) is like a Cartel. They do want they want, when they want, cost is no consideration, and most of their activities are done in secrecy. Here in Juneau, you cannot attend an Assembly meeting, its all Zoom. We have a myriad of “committees” that control everything, none are elected. They’re buying up buildings left and right and we have numerous homeless shelters being expanded/built as I write this. We need an investigation.

    • My experience. Back in the 1990s when Dennis Egan was mayor, I barged in on an executive session one time. A sign on the door stating they were in executive session would have kept me from entering. Their attitude was that such transparency was beneath them. I was somehow just supposed to know, despite being an out-of-towner visiting the state capitol, curious to observe how the CBJ conducts their business and responding to a public meeting notice.

  • Very well stated. And to top it off we want to site the “secure” ballot center in an avalanche zone? We simply need to pay a good fee to someone reputable like the League of women Voters to staff the voting centers. And anyone who desires can still request a mail ballot. Just too simple I guess.

    • Yeah, I’d really like my elections run by the League of Leftist Women Voters.

    • Appreciate your sense of humor, Dave… nothing like paying a good fee to someone reputable like the League of Women Voters or Black Lives Matter to staff the voting centers.
      .
      Mentioned BLM, they seem even more reputable because Alaska Airlines sells their clothing apparel.

  • Another great opinion piece written Win Guening. Thank you for taking the time to put this together Win.

    In addition to the nearly 700 disgruntled and disenfranchised voters that you pointed out, There were several hundred more people that contacted the city clerk’s office and wanted to change their vote as they had voted by mail and sent their ballots in before the Ibn Bailey story had been released. This is clearly one good reason to eliminate vote by mail.

    I agree with your opinion concerning the vote by mail. The hype was to make voting easier and those pushing the agenda believed that more people would vote and get involved in the system and help make the decisions for our community. However, with that said, human nature doesn’t change so easily and there are just those people that are disengaged, they don’t follow the issues, they really don’t care and they just do not vote.

    Also, I am of the opinion that we should not make voting so easy. Voting should require significant effort on the individuals part. When the voter has to make an effort to go to the appointed place, at the appointed day, during the appointed hours and have to stand in line or wait your turn to vote, it gives it much more credence. It’s a value added affair if you will.

    Making things easier is not always the best answer. Our right to vote is important, it is our opportunity to have voice and direct the community the way we wish it to be; Something that should be taken much more seriously.

    I agree that the money that has been spent and the money that they plan to spend is nothing but a huge waste. I think that we should do whatever we can to stop this vote by mail experiment. It is a failure!

    I would also like to state for the record that sending our ballots out of town to be counted by people in another city is another huge waste of money and a farce. What is the problem? Is it that our clerks in the City no longer have the ability to count? I’m sure that we can muster up a 1/2 a dozen people in the community that can tally up the ballots and give us the results on election night. That’s the way we used to do it.

  • Fabulous report Win. Two numbers stand out. 42,000 excess register voters state wide and 18,000 unreturned local ballots. A recipe for fraud. Local elections usually run 3 to 5 thousand votes for the winner. Given the only required ID is a signature, there is no control. Where there is smoke there is usually fire.

  • Kevin Meyer do your job or quit!!!

  • Mr. Gruening. Should we start a ballot initiative to reverse the assembly’s action regarding mail in voting?

  • Why do you think that besides Congress, that the USPO employees were exempted from the flu shot mandates? It is a point of fact that during the 1918 pandemic that the flu was spread to the isolated communities by means of the US Mail. The mail-in ballots are the only means that these people can retain their power. An elementary computer search identifies the lazy voters, and the ballots are casted on their behalf. Pretty easy game. In Alaska, there are so many people playing the PFD game that we have 110% registered voters than is possible. Senator Showers tried hard to get this corrected but got no cooperation. Meyers, who’s in charge of election integrity, can’t do anything because it would prove what a horrible job he has done and discredit the Dunlevy administration and decrease his chances of re-election. Try to discredit these facts.

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