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Wasilla senator introduces new election bill as the House considers a very different alternative

Alaska Capitol
Alaska Capitol(KTUU)
Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 3:59 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - State legislatures nationwide are considering bills to change electoral systems after a contentious 2020 cycle. The Alaska Legislature has two election bills before it that focus on different priorities for legislators when it comes to voting: security and accessibility.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, introduced a long-awaited new version of Senate Bill 39 on Thursday.

Responding in part to 113,000 Alaskans having their voter data breached in 2020, he says it would improve election integrity with greater protections for how voter data is stored and establish stricter chain of custody requirements for absentee ballots.

“My intent is — through rigorous debate and the committee process — to listen to all sides and make voting, including mail in voting, more secure, so Alaskans can be confident in their election system,” Shower said through a letter introduced with the new bill.

He said he supports secure by-mail voting, but is critical of the recent Anchorage Municipal Election. Shower claims conservative votes could have been suppressed by limited in-person voting options seen through long lines on Election Day.

He used that election as an example to say that there should be both robust by-mail and in-person options for Alaskan voters.

Shower’s 29-page bill requires that a digital identifier, possibly like a QR code, be used by all registered voters to cast a ballot. Voters who are unable to use a digital identifier could still vote in-person using traditional identification options.

SB39 also contains provisions that would impact various aspects of Alaska’s electoral system:

  • It would require the state’s voter roll to be maintained with an audit every two years by a nationally recognized expert.
  • It would allow Alaskans to track their absentee ballots and fix any problems with them before Election Day through a process known as “ballot curing” to ensure votes are counted.
  • It would expand the list of acceptable identification options to vote to include tribal ID cards, but remove hunting and fishing licenses as acceptable options.

Several Alaska Democrats did not want to comment yet on Shower’s bill, saying they are still reviewing it.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, has a very different proposal currently before the House Judiciary Committee, instead of security it’s focused on increasing accessibility for voters, but it shares one provision with Shower’s bill: It would also allow for a ballot curing process for absentee ballots.

There are some big differences.

Under Tuck’s bill, there would be no witness signature requirement for absentee ballots as was allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alaskans could register to vote on Election Day.

Absentee ballots would be counted as they arrive into the Division of Elections instead of one week after Election Day as was done in 2020.

Tuck says his bill would “modernize” the state’s election system. A version of his current bill passed through the House in 2020 that would have allowed voters to register once to receive absentee ballots and keep receiving them for future elections.

Republican legislators on the House Judiciary Committee have questioned how the Division of Elections can ensure election integrity with those proposed changes.

The new SB39, introduced before the Senate State Affairs Committee which Shower chairs, does not contain two of the more contentious provisions from his original legislation that sparked some push back.

A 2016 initiative approved by voters automatically registers Alaskans to vote when they apply for a Permanent Fund dividend. Shower proposed turning that into an “opt-in” option instead of one that is “opt-out.”

He still supports that idea but explained that change, supported by Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, could be included later in this bill or through other legislation.

SB39 also does not prevent Alaska communities from holding by-mail elections, as was written in the original bill. Shower said in January it was always his intention to allow local communities to hold by-mail elections if that’s what they wanted.

The new SB39 would allow local by-mail elections as long as communities follow new state rules on chain of custody requirements for those ballots. The new digital identifier requirements would also need to be followed.

Both Tuck’s and Shower’s bills face an uphill battle to be passed into law before the end of the legislative session. Shower said his bill would be amended through the committee process, but he hoped it would pass as quickly as possible.

Tuck said his bill, which needs to pass through three House committees and then the Senate, would likely not pass this year. He hopes to have it on the House floor before the end of the session.

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