Juneau residents weigh in on permanent shift to vote-by-mail

Inside the Anchorage Election Center in October 2020, Juneau City Clerk Beth McEwen gestures to the sorter being used to process ballot envelopes in Juneau’s local election. If a new measure goes through, Juneau would have its own secure space and ballot processing equipment for the city’s 2022 election. (Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

On Monday, five Juneau residents weighed in on a proposal that supports a permanent shift to voting by mail in local elections.

Four people who spoke during the public hearing with the Juneau Assembly supported the shift. Claire Richardson shared a particularly inconvenient voting experience that influenced her support.

“I remember Oct. 6, 1998, waddling down from Med-Surg to the elections in the hospital at Bartlett where we were allowed to vote in the municipal elections. And I was in labor. I voted that morning and gave birth that afternoon,” Richardson said.

That situation would have been a lot easier to avoid during Juneau’s first by-mail election last year. The election had the highest voter turnout in 20 years.

The Juneau Assembly decided to go to mail-in ballots last year largely to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Amid pandemic uncertainty, the Juneau Assembly decided in April to hold this year’s municipal election by mail again.

This fall, voters will have almost three weeks to cast ballots they’ll receive in the mail ahead of Election Day, Oct. 5. Voting in person will still be an option on Election Day, too.

The proposal Richardson and others were weighing in on was whether to spend $700,000 on new election equipment and to renovate a surplus city warehouse into a ballot processing facility.

Juneau engineering officials drew up this floor plan of how a city-owned, surplus warehouse along Thane Road could be converted to a center for processing mailed in ballots starting in the 2022 municipal election.

Without new equipment and a secure space in town, Juneau election officials must fly to Anchorage to process ballots.

If the proposal goes through, election workers expect to be able to process ballots in a warehouse along Thane Road beginning in 2022.

Dave Hanna was the only person who testified with reservations about it.

“You know, whether it’s based in fact or not, vote by mail is kind of a divisive issue,” Hanna said. “Too many people are incensed by the cost. Many aren’t convinced it’s secure. And we need to look at things that we can all agree on instead of promulgating things that are more controversial.”

For two reasons, he said it may also be a bad investment. He pointed out that the proposed site along Thane Road is in an area experts recently identified as being at moderate landslide and avalanche risk. Second, he speculated that blockchain technology and online voting may make the proposed ballot processing center obsolete within a few years.

A second public hearing and the Assembly’s final vote on the spending measure is scheduled for a Sept. 13 meeting.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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