Division of Elections emphasizes security before primaries
The Alaska Division of Elections held election worker training workshops in Nome last week. The goal of the two sessions, one on July 31 and another on August 1, was to prepare for Alaska’s primary election on August 21. Over 20 representatives from 10 Bering Strait region villages learned how to run the polls in their communities.
Region IV Elections Supervisor Angelique Horton said the training is held every other year—on even years ahead of primary and general elections—and will continue to occur. Among other skills, workers learn how to issue and count ballots as well as special needs voting and how to use the TSX voting machines. In February, the Nome Division of Elections office moved from the State Office Building on Front Street to the Sitnasuak building, where the trainings were held. Horton said the move allowed for much-needed additional space—for example, to house the materials sent out to the different precincts.
The course is important both practically and for illuminating the voting process itself. “There is a lot that goes on after a ballot has been cast,” said Director of the Alaska Division of Elections Josie Bahnke, who attended the Nome trainings. What happens after a voter completes his or her ballot is especially important now, she added, when election security is “at the forefront of people’s minds” due to recent hacking. A national problem became a local issue when, during the 2016 presidential elections, Alaska was one of 21 states to have its voting system tampered with. Hackers accessed and scanned a server containing the state elections website, but no results were compromised. According to a Division of Elections fact sheet, the Division is collaborating with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the system remains secure.
Bahnke explained that Alaska’s election system, though 20 years old, “has proven over time to have integrity.” Somewhat ironically, part of the system’s security comes from its antiquity. Alaska is one of the few states to still use paper ballots and the TSX voting machines were purchased in the early 2000s. The older system has its advantages because the paper ballots “create an auditable trail for us to certify the election,” Bahnke said. In a return to the past, one way the Division of Elections is addressing voter insecurity is by discontinuing online ballot return. Alaskan voters can still receive a ballot on an electronic device, but they need to return it by fax or mail.
Horton said the Division of Elections has seen an increase in early and absentee voting, which began on August 6. Early voting gives residents the option of casting their ballot up to fifteen days before the election. Early voting is attractive because, along with being convenient, August is a busy subsistence month for Alaskans. In 2014, 26 percent of voters cast ballots alternatively. In 2016, that number raised to 32 percent. The Division has been responding to Alaskans’ tendency to vote early by creating more early voting ballots in locations around the state—there are currently 165 open.
Though Alaska’s system has been sound thus far, the equipment and system itself are due for an upgrade, both for security reasons and to encourage voter turnout. Bahnke said the Division has secured funding and is in the process of determining a new system, which they hope to have in place by the 2020 elections. According to a Division of Elections report, the Department was given $4.8 million for the upgrade. The goal is to create a precinct based system that is adaptable to changes in state law, Bahnke said, but what exactly the system will be is still uncertain.
The Division of Elections partnered with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) to determine how residents, especially rural Alaskans, prefer to vote as well as what they perceive to be obstacles to voting. For residents of rural communities, hurdles include slow mail, language barriers, difficulty traveling to the polls (especially a problem for Elders) and lack of internet access. “It’s our mission to make sure that people have every opportunity to cast a ballot,” Bahnke said. According to official election results for the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout in District 39 was 52 percent, a bit higher than the state average of 48 percent.
ISER’s research offers three scenarios for the 2020 elections. Scenario one is keeping the process the same: in person on Election Day or early and absentee. Scenario two is utilizing a vote-by-mail system; the third option is a combination of the first two, meaning that Alaskans could vote in person at the Vote Center or could choose to receive a ballot in the mail and decide whether to mail it back or to turn it in to the Vote Center. Those polled preferred the hybrid option, scenario three.
Future changes aside, for now the focus is on 2018 and the primary elections this month. Alaskan voters will select one of the ten candidates vying for the U.S. Representative’s seat, currently held by Republican Don Young. Residents can also vote for a representative for their district. Representative Neal Foster is running unopposed in District 39. This year is especially important for Alaskans as the governor and lieutenant governors’ offices are up for reelection. Incumbent Bill Walker is running as an independent and is not on the primary ballot. Former Alaskan Senator Mark Begich is running unopposed as a Democrat. Of the seven Republican hopefuls, top candidates are former State Senator Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla and former Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell. Also in the race is a libertarian candidate, William Toien, who previously ran in 2010.
The governor will be elected during the general election on November 6.