Expanded voting options ordinance passed by assembly
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s marathon meeting this week overflowed into Wednesday afternoon after reaching midnight on Tuesday night.
When the body resumed its Zoom meeting, it was in the middle of debate over amendments to modify borough elections under Ordinance 20-24. The ordinance would provide for voting by mail, give more time before a run-off election, and would remove statements attached to ballot propositions.
Before recessing at midnight Tuesday, the assembly had unanimously passed an amendment to the ordinance designating January 1, 2021, as the date the ordinance would go into effect.
During Wednesday’s deliberation, the assembly’s first item of business was taking up an amendment by Sterling Assemblymember Norm Blakely that would take the approval process out of the hands of the assembly.
“I think the best way for this to be figured out and the most equitable way is to let the voters vote on it,” Blakley said. “And that's really why I was, you know, I think I was voted here, was to represent the people so they could represent themselves when things like this came by.”
Blakley and Assemblymember Kenn Carpenter of Seward both claimed to get huge volumes of email opposing the vote-by-mail aspect of the ordinance, but Clam Gulch Assemblymember Brent Johnson said his experience was the opposite.
“I guess people pick different people to send emails to because I have 29 emails in favor of this issue. I have four emails opposed to it,” Johnson said. “So that's what my record is. I'm a little surprised to hear. I call 29, lots and lots and lots and four, I don't call lots and lots and lots.”
Blakley and Carpenter said the emails they received were clearly divided geographically on the peninsula, which Fritz Creek Assemblymember Willy Dunne thought curious, explaining how the stakeholder’s group that came up with the recommendations was borough-wide and broad-based.
“I guess I'm hearing now that it's apparently a North versus South issue, which to me seems odd. I've gotten comments in support from people in Soldotna and the Central Peninsula,” Dunne said. “And sitting in on the election stakeholder's group, we had representation from all over the borough. We had representation from every city. So we had representation from East, North, South, West, the entire borough, including subject matter experts from around the borough. And, you know, very thoughtful, very deliberative conversation. And it was a unanimous decision by that group. All public meetings, you know, I don't remember public speaking out against it.”
Blakley defended his stance against voting by mail, saying any increase in voter turn-out that will result from offering it as an option would only be a temporary improvement at best.
“So vote by mail, I've heard a lot that people have said that it does increase voting and everything. And I've read a couple of articles that it absolutely does increase participation and voting, but after three or four years, it declines, and to the point where it's just about back where originally was,” Blakley said. “So voting by mail, if that's really the issue, is to get more people to participate, I think it does to begin with, but according to what I've read, that doesn't maintain that status.”
Kalifornsky Assemblymember Brent Hibbert said Blakley’s amendment would be appropriate only if the assembly was reducing voting options, not offering more, as the ordinance does.
“I would support this amendment if we were taking rights away from the voters. But these are just options. We'll still be able to go to the polls if we choose to, or we can choose to mail our vote in,” Hibbert said. “We're not, we're not taking any options away here.”
Blakley’s amendment to take the assembly out of the final decision-making process was defeated 6-to-3, with him, Carpenter, and Nikiski Assemblymember Jesse Bjorkman the only supporters.
Likewise, when the ordinance subsequently passed on the same 6-to-3 vote, it was the same three who dissented.
After the vote, Carpenter asked for a reconsideration of the ordinance, which will come at the assembly’s June 16 meeting. If a vote to reconsider it fails, the ordinance will stand as-is and will go into effect in the New Year.