Legislature(1999 - 2000)
04/20/1999 02:00 PM FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HOUSE BILL NO. 141 An Act providing for preferential voting in state and local elections. Representative Bunde MOVED to adopt work draft #1-LS0669\S, Kurtz, 4/19/99, as the version before the Committee. There being NO OBJECTION, it was adopted. KELLY SULLIVAN, STAFF, REPRESENTATIVE PETE KOTT, stated that Alaska has a history of electing minority candidates who collected a plurality of vote's cast, but not a majority. The most important principle of a democratic form of government is that the majority rules. HB 141 would eliminate the possibility of having a minority candidate win an election. Ms. Sullivan pointed out that HB 141 would allow a voter to prioritize their preferences by ranking each candidate. If no candidate received 50% of the votes cast, then the candidate with the least votes would be eliminated and the votes re-tabulated. Using a ranking system in state and local elections would insure that the winning candidate received at least 50% of the votes cast. Ms. Sullivan noted that the bill goes into length explaining the procedures necessary to manage a preferential style of voting. It is the bill's intent that the proposed style would be more fair and a more democratic process than the current system. She urged that the bill be moved from Committee. Ms. Sullivan requested the opportunity to show a video on "Instant Run Off Voting" (IRV) which addresses the current systems problems. The video outlined ways in which the IRV system would provide a sensible and fair alternative to the old method. In response to Representative Bunde, Ms. Sullivan explained that the bill would guarantee that every vote counts. Voters would continue to have the power to vote for only one candidate or up to five. She reiterated that the idea is that every vote counts. Representative Grussendorf interjected that the proposed system would provide an opportunity for all voters in support of a third party a chance to vote twice. Representative J. Davies requested clarification of the "write in candidates". Ms. Kelly commented that Co-Chair Therriault would address that question in a proposed amendment. [Copy on File]. She continued, the bill would allow voters to rank the write in candidate. Representative Austerman asked how an incorrect ballot would be determined. Ms. Kelly explained that portion of the ballot which was filled in correctly would be a counted vote, however, the vote filled out incorrectly would not be counted. Co-Chair Therriault recommended that a representative from the Division of Elections answer that question. STEVE HILL, (TESTIFIED VIA TELECONFERENCE), WEST COAST DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR VOTING DEMOCRACY, SAN FRANCISCO, stated that he would address the process and how other states are dealing with the concern. He noted that Center for Voting Democracy (CVD) has been active on both local and state levels in researching the questions regarding voting. He added that CVD has been in contact with Australia and Ireland where these practices have been implemented. He continued, the good news in terms of implementing the software is that Alaska is already using the required Active Vote sheet, however, the current software is different from that needed. Implementing that change would cost $200 thousand dollars. Mr. Hill suggested that an alternative method could be used which would not require software to be changed. Such a method would involve hand counting the ballot choices on election night. Mr. Hill added that with the proposed system of transferring a vote on the ballot, there would be no advantages to bullet voting. The vote is not transferred until the first candidate has lost. (Tape Change HFC 99 - 88, Side 2). Mr. Hill explained on how the two round run off works. All voted candidates continue to be in the ranks. He noted that in Ireland and Australia, they do not have write-in votes. That is a new idea coming out of Cambridge. In Alaska, one write-in would be allowed. Mr. Hill commented how highly sensitized the machinery is that counts ballots. In some situations, the ballot that is improperly marked could be "spit" out of the tallying machine. Co-Chair Therriault questioned if Massachusetts was the only State nationally using the proposed system. Mr. Hill replied that Massachusetts is as does the City of New York for community school board elections. Representative Grussendorf pointed out that the video mentioned that there would be no primary elections. He asked if it was the intent that an IRV would be used in the primary election. He noted that Ireland and Australia are unitary in nature and do not have the separation of powers. Representative Grussendorf cautioned that the proposed system will create complications and questioned why Alaska would elect to implement such a system. Mr. Hill replied that it is possible with the transferable ballot system to do away with primaries. He agreed that would be sometimes advantageous and sometimes not. He noted that nothing would change with the separation of powers in the proposal before the Committee. The bill would provide a means in which the majority of the electorate provide the winner. Representative J. Davies questioned if the legislation would require a closed primary. Mr. Hill replied that the way in which the bill is currently written would require a closed primary. Representative J. Davies interjected that Alaska currently has an open primary that the population favors. Representative Grussendorf questioned if the intent was to include primaries. Co-Chair Therriault replied that the proposed legislation does not do away with primaries. Representative Grussendorf argued that the bill specifies that it would "reduce" the necessity for primaries. Representative Foster voiced confusion with the legislation. He asked what the effect of negative voting would have in an election. Mr. Hill provided an example of a past presidential election. Some people vote for the greater or lesser of two evils one being the second choice. The proposed system would free voters up to vote for who they really want. Co-Chair Therriault summarized that if there were three people running for three spots, a sway could occur by casting one vote. Representative J. Davies spoke to the cost of buying new software and asked if Mr. Hill's group would be willing to help the State defray some of the costs associated with that charge. Mr. Hill replied that CVD is a non-profit educational organization, however, noted that other states are contemplating the system and might be willing to negotiate a cost share development. Representative J. Davies asked why the video called the present system "unfair". Mr. Hill proposed that the value exists in that the majority rules in an IRV election. "Fairness" could be a mark of a voting system not giving voters what they ask for. Voting systems all have certain values attached to them, and the value of preferential voting is that the majority rules. Representative Grussendorf asked if New Mexico had accepted the new form of election. Mr. Hill replied that the bill passed in the New Mexico Senate and then died in the House. Representative Grussendorf reiterated the facts regarding the cost of the software and who could purchase the rights to use it from the State of Alaska. Mr. Hill reiterated that there are other states that are seriously looking at the possibility of using this system. Representative J. Davies questioned if Mr. Hill would portray Alaska as currently "looking into using the system" if it was rejected here. Mr. Hill spoke to the cost, pointing out that to amortize the $200 thousand dollar cost over 10 years would be $20 thousand dollars per year. GAIL FENUMIAI, ELECTION PROGRAM SPECIALIST, OFFICE OF THE LT. GOVERNOR, voiced concern with HB 141 and the Division's ability to work the proposed version. Ms. Fenumiai expounded on statements made by Mr. Hill. She stated that the global designed software would make Alaska the only state using it. At this time, there is no one else to help off set that cost. Additionally, New York recently dropped using the system for their school board elections because it took too long to tally the votes. Ms. Fenumiai noted that the Division of Elections anticipates problems for the election board trainers and workers. Presently, the Division has a difficult time recruiting workers. The workers they do have spend many hours at polling locations to count the ballots. The legislation will require extra election board workers. If handout count teams are required to spend more time in the district locations than they already are, it will be more difficult recruiting. An additional concern is the amount of time it would take to provide results. In Alaska, absentee ballots can be received up to fifteen days after Election Day. The actual transferring of votes could take as long as the 15th day, the date when the State Review Board begins their process. Such action could cause an additional delay of validating the certified winner. Ms. Fenumiai continued, write in votes would continue to create a host of problems. In order to determine who the lowest first choice vote would be, the Division would be required to individually count the write in votes. She stressed the amount of time and cost that would mandate. Additionally, the mis-marked ballots create concern; how would they be dealt with. Language must clarify that in the bill, without which, would make the legislation open to legal challenge. Mr. Fenumiai believed that the proposed legislation would create confusion for the voters. The process will take a lot longer placing the certification of an election around December 12th, which is in conflict with the State Constitution, Article 3, Section 4: "The Governor shall be sworn in the first Monday in December, following the election". The time would make that one week later. The Division's concern regarding the length of time it will take to transfer votes, the redistribution of ballots, and the State Review Board's needs. Representative Bunde questioned the fiscal note accompanying the legislation. Ms. Fenumiai explained that the fiscal note would add an additional 160 acti-vote precinct tabulators in precincts throughout the State, accounting for over $1 million dollars. She expected that there would be additional costs on either end of the process. If votes were hand counted in the precincts and the first choice vote only marked, the remaining choices would be moved to a central location such as Juneau. She emphasized the amount of time and money that would require. To achieve the quickest and most accurate results would be to place tabulators in all 452 precincts throughout the State. Ms. Fenumiai concluded, it is not known if our current system can be modified to count the other choices. She acknowledged that the vendor has instructed the Division that program modifications can be made to accommodate this type of voting system, however, the details have not been worked out. Representative J. Davies pointed out that hand counting could be a cheaper way to go in the first year, however that expense would be a reoccurring cost for every election. He reiterated his concern with losing the primary election ballot and the cross voting which would occur within political parties. Representative Bunde asked if it was necessary to have a closed primary for this system to work. Ms. Femumiai defrayed that question to the sponsor. She asked what would happen in a two-candidate race where neither candidate received 50% of the vote. CHRIS COOK, (TESTIFIED VIA TELECONFERENCE), CHAIR, ALASKA DEMOCRATIC PARTY, BETHEL, requested the Committee to ponder several points which the bill would implement. It would change the voting rights of the populace which he believed should not be considered without public debate and consensus. The vast majority of Alaskans agree with the current system. (Tape Change HFC 99 - 89, Side 1). Mr. Cook reiterated that the proposed voting system is untried and unproven. It would be expensive to implement as the software does not exist at this time. He recommended that a mock system should initially be set up. The difficulty with the proposed system would be magnified 100% once it reaches the general public. He believed that it will confuse voters and delay voting results. The proposed system would be particularly difficult for two types of voters: * Those that do not have English as their 1st language; and * Those that come from the other 49 states where this system is not used. He argued that complications in the preferential voting system would discourage more voters from turning out. Mr. Cook continued, the chemistry of the entire election system would change with run off elections. The majority vote requirement is not part of the present constitution and implementation would require a constitutional change. The concept that to have a majority vote is needed to win an office conflicts with Alaska's having multiple candidates for a party. Mr. Cook summarized, the proposed system could lead to legal challenges from the Voting Rights Act as it could deny certain groups access to the right of participation. He emphasized that the current system serves the State well and why fix something that is not broken. Co-Chair Therriault disagreed that the proposed legislation would "tinker" with a person's right to vote. Representative Bunde believed that the bill would encourage multiple party's participation. KATHLEEN STRASBAUGH, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, DEPARTMENT OF LAW, stated that there are legal issues regarding the legislation. She advised that in order for the State to apply the proposed legislation to the gubernatorial race, there would need to be a constitutional amendment added. She pointed out that a stipulation had deliberately added to the Alaska State Constitution addressing votes received. That language was incorporated understanding that there would be no run off. She noted that there would be a dispute if that were required and pointed out that HJR 31 had been proposed to address that issue. Ms. Strasbaugh agreed that the concerns of the Division of Elections were well founded. Practical problems can lead to litigation based on general election laws. In Alaska, the right to a write-in vote is not a constitutional determination. It has not been addressed, however, some states do view write-in voting as an effective way. Court cases tend to arise when there is difficulty in determining the voter's intent. Ms. Strasbaugh spoke to primary election concerns. People in Alaska are accustomed to being able to vote for whomever they like in the primary election. She guaranteed that logic would not enter into it. She foresaw voters arguing with the poll workers which could become a serious issue. There are other elements of "surprise" in the proposed system which will lead to litigation. It is important that the poll workers are not required to discuss the voting procedures and strategy. Voting will become a strategic choice. Ms. Strasbaugh distributed a handout - Scenario #2. [Copy on File]. She explained that the handout illustrates possible voting scenarios, stressing how complex the voters thinking will need to become in order to fill out the ballot. These factors are important considerations with passage of this legislation. Ms. Strasbaugh contended that there is a lack of press addressing this concept. Nationally, certain municipalities have had some experience with per proportionate voting. Another alternative is the cumulative voting method which was used and abandoned after 110 years by the Illinois Legislature. She explained that the purpose of that system was established during the Civil War, when there were very polarized voting relationships, it was essential to guarantee that each party had an adequate vote. There is something in every new system that "worries" people that their vote is not receiving proper treatment. Some voters feel that minority parties will have too much power if these types of systems are put into place. Ms. Strasbaugh acknowledged that there are other voters interested in alternative voting procedures. These are the academic commentators and the participants in voting rights litigation. The Courts are looking closely at redistricting which creates an additional voting concern. An alternate system that has been discussed is the multi-member districts. Ms. Strasbaugh concluded, Italy is currently trying to get rid of the voting preference scheme. Shri Lanka is another place that employs this type of voting that is looking at other considerations. The United Kingdom has spent the last year studying if they should change their current system to a procedure used in the U.S. or to incorporate preference voting. The voters in that country will make the decision. CRAIG BLACK, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, DEPARTMENT OF LAW, walked Committee members through a potential scenario which could result from passage of the proposed legislation. Mr. Black distributed a handout called "Surprising Results from HB 141". [Copy on File]. He addressed examples of a general election, illustrating how HB 141 would not keep candidates who are "out of step" with the public, from being elected into office. JOHN LINDBACK, CHIEF OF STAFF, OFFICE OF THE LT. GOVERNOR, stated that there are significant issues which need to be addressed with the proposed legislation. He noted that the Lt. Governor has serious concerns about the bill and is opposed to the legislation on legislative grounds relating to: * Fairness; * Legal Problems; * The speed which this policy issue appears to be moving through the Legislature; * Budget priorities; and * Expectation that Alaska would be serving as the "lab rat" for the rest of the Nation. Mr. Lindback pointed out that most Alaskans feel "just fine" about the outcome of local elections since inception at statehood. He stated that the proposed voting system does not provide the mandate that voters want. The proposed system would produce a candidate that received less than 50% of the first vote round and then was pushed over the top by a second pool of voters. He emphasized that is not a majority mandate and would provide for someone who is not a majority candidate. That would be a false mandate and is misleading to suggest that would be a true mandate. Mr. Lindback stated that the proposed system would be inherently unfair to mainstream voters, by providing third party voters two votes while the mainstream voters receive one vote. People like the idea of ranking candidate so that they can say on the ballot who they do "not" like. However, when you explain to the voter how the redistribution works, the voter begins to become concerned, because they discover that the second choice will factor into the equation of who wins the race. The way the bill is structured, the third party voters have their votes redistributed which means that the third party voter receives two votes and the mainstream voter receives one vote. People do not like that. It does not sound fair to them. He emphasized that this bill deserves and requires major consideration by the public. Mr. Lindback advised that Mr. Hill did acknowledge that the proposed legislation recommends a closed primary. He noted that Lt. Governor Ulmer clarified that there is a section of the bill which is closed primary and foresees litigation through its implementation. The legislation will restrict people from roaming the ballot. Co-Chair Therriault suggested that there is a difference between "roaming the ballot" and being restricted by not having a chance to pick between the parties. Mr. Lindback understood that distinction. Mr. Lindback reiterated that no other state is implementing this procedure. Alaska will be the "lab rat" for the rest of the Nation. He pointed out that this bill was introduced twice in Vermont, going no where, as no one understands why we need to fix something that is not broken. Mr. Lindback indicated that John Anderson, an unsuccessful third party candidate, started the group Mr. Hill works for. He elaborated that this bill has appeal to third parties. Mr. Lindback had asked Center for Voting Democracy (CVD) why they had not spent the $200 thousand dollars for the software so that they could provide it freely to individual states. The response was they were too small to undertake that cost. The Office of the Lt. Governor expressed that is not fair, suggesting that Alaska should incur the expense for the rest of the Nation. If we are considering being the lab rats for the rest of the states, it is important that State voters are consulted. (Tape Change HFC 99 - 89, Side 2). Mr. Lindback spoke to funding the proposed legislation. He stated that there are greater concerns which this year's limited budget should address. Mr. Lindback urged Committee members to slow the process down. He referenced a handout provided in member's files from the League of Women Voters, requesting that the process slow down. [Copy on File]. Additionally, he pointed out that the legislation could require two constitutional amendments. Representative J. Davies observed that only in two of the last ten gubernatorial elections was a clear majority reached. He added that an argument regarding the fairness of any election will always exist. He was convinced that the proposed legislation would not get the State closer to a fair solution. Co-Chair Therriault commented that the fiscal note appears to be high. He requested further information regarding the note. HB 141 was HELD in Committee for further consideration.