Legislature(2019 - 2020)GRUENBERG 120
04/04/2019 03:00 PM STATE AFFAIRS
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HB 115-ABSENTEE VOTING 5:25:29 PM CO-CHAIR FIELDS announced that the next order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 115, "An Act relating to absentee voting; and providing for an effective date." 5:25:49 PM REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS TUCK, Alaska State Legislature, as prime sponsor of HB 115, paraphrased from the sponsor statement as follows: House Bill 115 would give Alaskans the option to receive absentee ballots by mail for future state elections. Currently, the Permanent Absentee Voter List is limited to Alaskans that reside in remote areas without reasonable access to an in-person polling place, disabled voters who ask to be designated a permanent absentee voter, and voters whose permanent residence is an institution serving the aged or persons with a disability. House Bill 115 would preclude the Division of Elections from requiring a voter who chooses to receive an absentee ballot for all future elections to reapply for an absentee ballot unless the voter has not voted an absentee ballot for a period of four years or the voter's previous absentee ballot was returned to the division as undeliverable. Since the 1960s, absentee voting has been legal in most states as a way for eligible voters to cast a ballot without being at their normal designated polling place on Election Day. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1970 included protections for absentee voters. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia allow permanent absentee voting. House Bill 115 would give voters the option to always receive an absentee ballot without having to fill out an application. This simple change to Alaska's absentee voting system would make absentee voting in Alaska more convenient for those who prefer the ease of casting a ballot through the mail. Please join me in support of House Bill 115, which will strengthen our representative democracy by making it easier for Alaskans to cast a vote. REPRESENTATIVE TUCK referred to Hawaii's voter registration application, which allows the applicant to choose to always vote by mail, unless terminated by missing an election or the ballot is returned to Hawaii's Office of Elections. 5:29:07 PM REPRESENTATIVE WOOL asked about the mechanics of voting under the proposed legislation - whether a voter's name would be at a polling place if they received and returned a ballot to the Division of Elections (DOE) by mail. He asked whether the proposed legislation represents a precursor to "vote by mail." REPRESENTATIVE TUCK responded, "It can be." He added that under HB 115, voting by mail would be an elective for the individual and not enforced on everyone. He mentioned that he likes to go to the polling place to vote; however, the proposed legislation offers a convenience for voters. REPRESENTATIVE VANCE asked about the process for applying for an absentee ballot - by paper, online, or both. 5:30:47 PM GAIL FENUMIAI, Director, Division of Elections (DOE), answered that currently DOE allows people to vote absentee by applying by mail, by facsimile (fax), or through its on-line ballot delivery system. REPRESENTATIVE VANCE referred to the zero-fiscal note (FN) and asked whether under HB 115, there would be increased costs for automatically mailing out ballots for four years. MS. FENUMIAI replied that DOE anticipates that under HB 115, the increase would be gradual. It is possible that the number of people choosing to vote by mail would become great enough to cause DOE to reevaluate and possibly request a budgetary increase; however, at this time there is much uncertainty. REPRESENTATIVE VANCE asked for the number of absentee voters currently [participating] in statewide elections. MS. FENUMIAI responded that it fluctuates from year to year - from a primary election to a general election. REPRESENTATIVE VANCE asked for a general estimate to project the fiscal impact. She pointed out that when the Municipality of Anchorage implemented its Vote By Mail, the cost was more than $1 million - substantially more than in-person voting. MS. FENUMIAI replied that in the 2018 general election, there were 25,807 people requesting a ballot by mail; in the 2016 general election, there were 31,499; in the 2014 general elections, there were 31,282; in the 2012 general election, there were 33,940; in the 2010 general election, there were 30,400; and the 2008 general election had 45,769. 5:33:46 PM REPRESENTATIVE STORY asked for clarification: if a person requested an absentee ballot, it would automatically be sent to them for the next four years. REPRESENTATIVE TUCK responded by saying that the preference would be a check box for someone to opt to have a permanent absentee ballot. REPRESENTATIVE WOOL asked whether for someone applying for an absentee ballot, his/her name would be taken off the voter list in the polling place or the name on the mailed ballot would be cross-referenced against the names at the polling place. MS. FENUMIAI answered that there are mechanisms for marking the precinct register, if someone has voted already. She expressed her belief that currently DOE does not have the capability of marking "requested an absentee by mail ballot." She said DOE has checks and balances in place to check whether someone voted a by-mail ballot and at the polling place on Election Day. She maintained that the person's name would not be removed from the register; the register contains every eligible voter in the precinct. A person requesting a by-mail ballot may change his/her mind and go to a polling place instead. REPRESENTATIVE VANCE commented that she highly values the integrity of elections, and she expressed that having an automatic mail out for four years by checking a box is concerning. She offered her belief that this removes the accountability to make a concerted effort to be involved in the voting process. She suggested that having such a check box for receiving the permanent fund dividend (PFD) for four years is abhorrent to her, because she believes that the process for applying for the PFD should be intentional and should ensure residency and identification. She offered that over-convenience may encourage disengagement. She stated that she likes the idea of reminding people that it is time to vote; just because the ballot comes by mail does not ensure engagement; and the cost of printing and mailing is a concern to her. REPRESENTATIVE TUCK stated that the intent of HB 115 is to make voting more convenient; because of that convenience, the Anchorage municipal elections received much greater participation. He added the it provides convenience to people in hospitals, people who are bed-ridden, people who are disabled, and people in rural Alaska, who can only vote by mail. He reiterated the conditions under which the permanent absentee voting would be discontinued. REPRESENTATIVE TUCK agreed to invite testimony from the Municipality of Anchorage Elections to provide more information on any election integrity issues as a result of its Vote By Mail system. REPRESENTATIVE WOOL, in response to Representative Vance's concern, commented that one still must receive the ballot, open it up, fill it out, and mail it back, therefore, putting some thought and time into voting. CO-CHAIR FIELDS mentioned that the mailed ballot is quite challenging. CO-CHAIR FIELDS stated that HB 115 would be held over.