Alaska Legislature fails to pass election reform this year

Senators hope to enact changes before the next election in 2024

By: - May 19, 2023 4:10 pm
Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, talks to fellow senators during a break in Alaska Senate proceedings on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, talks to fellow senators during a break in Alaska Senate proceedings on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska legislators say that election reform is a top priority, but changes to state policies failed to pass this year. That’s despite compromise and consensus between lawmakers from both parties on an issue that’s known for dividing them. It’s not the first time either — a bipartisan bill failed to pass in the final hours of last year’s session, too.

The Senate State Affairs Committee sponsored an election reform bill that combined pieces of other legislation. Committee chair Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, worked closely on Senate Bill 138 with Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, who led the committee last session.

“This was a good, collaborative work between people who usually are diametrically opposed to items. But this, in fact, has been something we’ve been able to work together on,” Kawasaki said on Wednesday.

Both senators said they got to a compromise where they felt like the bill could help renew Alaskan voters’ confidence.

“We had it going, it was moving toward the middle,” Kawasaki said. “We could have passed it over a couple days ago, and then it would have gotten into the House, but it just sort of got tripped up in the last 72 hours.”

Kawasaki said a bipartisan group of legislators came up with a list of about 20 reforms they could all agree on. Those included things like adding a system to verify voters’ signatures, letting voters fix errors on mail-in ballot envelopes, allowing voters to register and vote on Election Day, and tightening residency requirements to clean up voter rolls.

Signature verification is a system where voters’ ballot signatures are compared electronically with their signature on file with the Division of Elections to make sure there aren’t major discrepancies. Voters would have the opportunity to review the ballot if the signatures didn’t match.

Another change would allow ballot curing, which is a way to let voters correct their mail-in ballot envelope if they make a mistake. It guards against fraud while including as many votes as possible.

The bill will allow same day voter registration, but the ballot will be an absentee, special needs or questioned ballot.

To make sure voter rolls don’t include people who are no longer qualified to vote in Alaska, the bill would shorten the timeframe for the Division of Elections to ask voters to verify their registration. Currently, that happens after voters don’t vote in two straight general elections. Under the bill, it would be one general election cycle, or every two years. If voters don’t respond, they would move to inactive status. They would still be able to vote in the next election, but it would be using a questioned ballot.

“Over the last several years, we’ve just sort of heard about the potential for fraud in elections. We, as a group, want to give confidence to Alaskan voters that it’s transparent, that it’s fair, that elections are being done in a fair and equitable manner across the state,” Kawasaki said.

Shower said he was frustrated that election reform didn’t get through again this year. He said he’s been working on the issue since 2018.

“I’d like to go back where we accepted the results, right? Having faith in the system,” he said.

He said the Senate’s timeline didn’t give the House, which was busy with the budget by the end of session, enough time to consider the legislation.

“If it’s a caucus priority,” Shower asked, “Why did it not get brought to us until a couple of days before the end of the 120 day session? You’re telling me that Senate Finance couldn’t have done this months ago and gotten to so we had time to maneuver?”

Shower and Kawasaki both said they plan to work to get a version of the bill passed early next legislative session.

The senators worked with Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, who oversees the Division of Elections, to see how much of the bill the state could put into effect before it is time to vote next year—if they get it passed quickly next session.

Shower said they were aiming for the first week.

“We should get ready over the interim and move that as fast as we can the beginning of next session, and then give the lieutenant governor and Division of Elections director the best chance they can to enact some of it because these are agreed upon, good things that both sides of the aisle say, ‘These are important,’” Shower said.

Dahlstrom promised to work with legislators, but noted there are constraints.

“We will do the absolute best we can to get it implemented.” Dahlstrom said of the Division of Elections. “I need to work within the confines of state government, too, right? Payroll and overtime issues and staffing issues.”

Dahlstrom said implementing reforms for next year’s election would even be tight this year, but the Division of Elections could likely put certain elements of the bill into place before Alaskans are ready to vote in 2024.

She said signature verification would be hard to implement next year, even if legislators work quickly, because it involves buying equipment and training staff to use it, but other items are more doable.

Despite the lack of success this year, Kawasaki held out hope for the bill through the end of session—as he packed his suitcases and paperwork on Wednesday morning, he left the box with his election materials unsealed, just in case.


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Claire Stremple
Claire Stremple

Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau, Alaska. She got her start in public radio, first at KHNS in Haines and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. Her focus for the Beacon is education and criminal and social justice.