Voting in Alaska will change in 2020 — how different will it be?

Published: Jul. 25, 2018 at 4:51 PM AKDT
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The Alaska Division of Elections plans to spend $4.8 million on new equipment for 2020 — a complete revamp of voting that will likely include the mail.

Division director Josie Bahnke said during a teleconference Wednesday that its 20-year-old hardware and software are due for an upgrade. That’s partly because voting methods have changed, but also to confront problems with cyber security that allowed hackers to breach the system in 2016, though officials say no votes were compromised.

“In a perfect world, we would create an unhackable system, but we do know our count is secured,” said division spokeswoman Samantha Miller.

Officials haven’t picked out a new system yet, but plan to study the ones recommended by the federal government. The division has hired a former Anchorage municipal attorney, Dennis Wheeler, to help guide the way. If the Alaska Legislature needs to change laws for new ways of voting, he said he would ask.

“I just started going through the statutes,” Wheeler said.

It’s possible the state may need to have a method to allow voters to vote absentee “permanently,” Bahnke said. In any event, it’s likely the state will end up with a “hybrid” system that sends ballots out by mail, but collects them at central locations, much like Anchorage did earlier this year when it experienced a higher voter turnout than usual.

“Vote by mail is not an option for Alaska,” Bahnke said. But in any event, she rejected the idea that the state would have separate voting methods for urban and rural Alaska.

“One of the guiding principles of the group is that if it doesn’t work for rural Alaska, it won’t work for Alaska,” Bahnke said. “We’ve been very cognizant of that, which was kind of the trigger for the research that we did. We don’t have two separate methods mapped out.”

During the teleconference Wednesday, researchers reported on studies they did that show what voters think about elections. Virgene Hanna, a director at the University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research, said that of the group questioned in an ISER report — more than 400 residents of Southwest Alaska — "49 percent of people wanted to keep it the way it is now, 14 percent supported the mail out and mail back effort, and 36 percent liked the idea of getting the ballot in the mail and having different ways to return the ballot."