ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - As states across the country move to mail-in elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska’s lieutenant governor announced Friday that statewide primary elections would be conducted in “the traditional manner.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer said Alaskans would have three options to vote in August: in-person voting on election day, absentee voting, or in-person early voting from 15 days before election day.
Latex gloves and face masks will be provided for voters and election workers for in-person voting. Safe social distancing will also be required.
The lieutenant governor said that coronavirus cases may rise and the way the general election is conducted could change. “No one knows what the virus is going to be like in November,” Meyer said.
The current intention is for the general election to be held in the same manner as the primaries. “As of today, the method we’re going forward with, with the primary, is the method we’re going forward with in the general,” Meyer said.
In March, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 241 that authorized the lieutenant governor to decide whether Alaska would hold mail-in elections throughout 2020.
Meyer rejected that idea, citing a risk of fraud in sending out ballots across Alaska. “That’s 600,000 unsecured ballots that are either sitting in the post office, sitting on your kitchen table or in the garbage can. That’s very concerning for us,” Meyer said.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democrat from Sitka, refuted those fears, referencing national studies that show voter fraud in mail-in elections is rare.
Kreiss-Tomkins also asked what the difference is in relying on absentee ballots to prevent fraud. “If this is suddenly a concern for vote-by-mail, how is it not a concern for absentee ballots?”
The State of Nebraska held its primaries on Tuesday with 80% of voters deciding to use absentee ballots when they had the option to vote in-person.
Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes said the difference is that Alaska’s primaries are held later in the year when the threat of coronavirus may have lessened, and that voters need to be proactive in requesting an absentee ballot.
A mail-in election would require ballots to be sent to every registered voter, Meyer said, raising questions how voters would have their identities verified. “The way I look at it, in God we trust, but for the rest of us, a little verification is appropriate,” Hughes said.
Some lawmakers expressed concern after Friday’s announcement, particularly with the risk of spreading the coronavirus during in-person voting.
“It’s kind of a shocking decision for the lieutenant governor to do this, in light of the fact we have this process that works so well here in Anchorage,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
Since 2018, the Municipality of Anchorage has had a vote-by-mail option. Signatures are verified electronically against voters’ records from prior elections.
The lieutenant governor said it took the municipality at least a year to set up its vote-by-mail system. “And, we just wouldn’t have that time,” Meyer said.
On Tuesday, the House State Affairs Committee is preparing to learn more about mail-in elections. Kreiss-Tomkins said he would ask Anchorage Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones about how the municipality’s mail-in election processes could be scaled up to be used statewide.
Jones has experience holding an election during the coronavirus pandemic. During the April Anchorage election, only one in-person polling location was open for voters. Another challenge was that 95% of election workers told the municipality they weren’t comfortable working during the coronavirus pandemic.
Similar challenges exist at a state level. “Only around half of election workers have said they’re comfortable coming back,” Meyer said on Friday.
The Division of Elections is moving forward with creative solutions, including asking members of the Alaska Parent Teacher Association to volunteer as election workers. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of unemployed people right now, so we think there’s folks we can tap into, to help us both for the primary and the general election,” Meyer said.
For Alaskans uncomfortable with in-person voting, there will be the option to send in a request for an absentee ballot. The request must be made ten days before election day.
Wielechowski expressed concern that voters may not be aware of the deadline to request an absentee ballot.
“I think there will be a huge amount of people, who, for whatever reason, don’t request one and at the last minute they’ll say, ‘I want to vote.’ And they’ll realize they can’t do it, and they’ll have to go down to the polling place,” he said.
A Pew Research study shows a clear majority of voters and election workers are older and in an age group that has a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus.
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