A bill introduced by request of Republican Gov. Sean Parnell Wednesday would move the date of Alaska’s primary elections, which are currently held every even-numbered year on the fourth Tuesday of August, up by two weeks.
In a press conference Wednesday morning, his second since the legislative session started last month, Parnell said the change will make it easier for the state to get absentee ballots out to military and overseas voters on time. Federal law requires that those ballots go out at least 45 days before Election Day.
“We have an obligation to ensure that voters have access to the polls, especially those serving in uniform overseas,” Parnell said.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, whose office oversees the election process in Alaska, said he asked Parnell to bring the bill forward.
“If our election’s the first week of November, 45 days really means you want to be (transmitting absentee ballots to military and overseas voters) in the third week of September,” said Treadwell Wednesday afternoon. “Sometimes Alaskans have races that are so close that … it would be hard to finish the primary and get the election certified and get the ballots printed to meet that 45-day deadline.”
The date change would also mean the primary election will be held before the start of the University of Alaska’s academic year, rather than during the week that it starts. That means students who are registered to vote at school but are spending the summer elsewhere — working a summer job or internship, going home for summer break, on vacation or otherwise — would have to change where they are registered to vote or else vote an absentee ballot in the primary.
Treadwell stressed that the change is not intended to affect student voting.
“That was not really part of our consideration," Treadwell said. "The consideration here was to get it done for the military."
Treadwell went on to say that people should "(not) read anything into this in terms of trying to suppress or disenfranchise students.”
Alaska offers several means of making it relatively easy for people to register to vote or cast an absentee ballot, some of which Treadwell pointed out Wednesday. Would-be voters can request absentee ballots be mailed or faxed to them using an application form on the Division of Elections website, or register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license.
The state also has excuse-free absentee voting.
University of Alaska Southeast Chancellor John Pugh offered his thoughts on the bill’s effects on student voting Thursday evening.
“I’m not sure about the overall impact,” Pugh wrote in an email. “However, it probably would not impact students from Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka who are attending their local campuses. Theoretically, students from out of town still would be at home and would have the opportunity to vote in their home districts rather than voting absentee.”
Many different elements had to be considered in deciding on where to move the primary date, Treadwell said, naming the hunting and fishing seasons and legislators’ desire to be able to return home to their districts and campaign after the end of the Legislative session in March before facing primaries.
“We had to kind of tie it between the availability of people on the campaign side, the availability of students, availability of families who might be away on vacation and the availability of fishermen who are fishing,” said Treadwell. “We thought, you know, all things being equal, that it wouldn’t have a major effect on turnout to move two weeks earlier.”
Primary elections in Alaska, as Treadwell noted, tend to have a much lower turnout rate than general elections.
Turnout for the primary election last year was 25.3 percent, well below the 59.6 percent turnout rate for the November election — despite two controversial ballot measures appearing on the primary ballot and with no competitive statewide races in the general election.
During Parnell’s press conference, the governor was asked whether the Division of Elections has had difficulty in getting general election ballots out to military and overseas voters by the legal deadline. He responded that it has.
“The timeframes are set by federal law, and they have had difficulty with that,” Parnell said. “It’s put them under intense pressure that doesn’t need to be if we move it back two weeks.”
Gail Fenumiai, director of the Division of Elections, confirmed that is the case in an email Thursday evening.
Fenumiai wrote that the United States Department of Justice is “extremely serious” about enforcing the 45-day deadline for military and overseas ballots, adding, “With a primary election in late August, the division finds ourselves in a tight position up to the wire (following election certification, recounts completed and any court challenges resolved) to get official ballots printed and mailed per federal law for the general election.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.