According to the state of Alaska, there are 547,212 Alaskans 18 and older. Only 501,515 are registered to vote.
A new campaign hopes to use the Permanent Fund Dividend as a tool to go after the other 45,697.
Kimberly Reitmeier is chairwoman of PFD Voter Registration, a group gathering signatures to put a initiative on the 2016 primary election ballot. If organizers get the names and numbers they need, Alaskans will be asked to vote on a proposal that would make registering to vote as easy as registering for the PFD.
“Increasing voter registration is our focus,” Reitmeier said. “We want to encourage that civic responsibility of voting.”
Reitmeier is executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, a joint body of the 12 Alaska Native Regional Corporations.
The association has long encouraged campaigns to increase the number of Alaska Native voters, who statistics show are underrepresented in Alaska elections.
In the runup to the 2014 elections, the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority released figures showing only 57 percent of registered Alaska Native voters turned out to vote in the 2012 general election. That was below the state’s total turnout — 59.6 percent of registered Alaskans voted for president that year.
Alaska Natives aren’t the only ones underrepresented at the polls. Rural voters, young voters, minority voters and lower-class voters show up at polls less than their urban, older, whiter and richer counterparts.
After the 2014 election, Reitmeier said, a core group of get-out-the-vote supporters thought about their next steps. When the conversation came up, their thoughts turned to Oregon’s motor voter law, which automatically registers people to vote and updates their registration using information from the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles.
Alaska has an even better tool, Reitmeier said: the Permanent Fund Dividend Division. “It’s a great system. Who doesn’t apply?” she said.
As envisioned, the proposed voter initiative would allow the dividend division to share information with the division of elections. New voters could be automatically registered and existing voters would have their contact information updated annually.
“There is an opt-out option,” Reitmeier said. “It’s not mandatory. … It’s just trying to be a convenient, common-sense answer to simplifying the process.”
Most of the organizers of PFD Voter Registration live in Anchorage. In Southeast, there’s three from Sitka (including Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka) and one from Juneau.
Callie Conerton is student body president at the University of Alaska Southeast. She said the idea of easy registration — and easy updates — is important because Alaska’s population is mobile. “People move a lot around the state,” she said, and without updated voter information, they might not have the ability to vote.
“I think it’s important that people actually vote, and registration leads to voting,” she said.
Organizers of PFD Voter Registration need to get 28,545 valid signatures to put their idea on next year’s election ballot. So far, they have about 5,000, Reitmeier wrote in an email.
PFD Voter Registration has hired Scott Kohlhaas, the state’s leading signature-gatherer, to organize the effort. Kohlhaas, a former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, helped get most of last year’s ballot initiatives to voters.
According to filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, much of the funding for PFD Voter Registration has come from groups that traditionally support Democratic candidates for office.
Alaska Conservation Voters contributed $20,000. Alaska AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 1547 and IAFF Local 1264 each added $5,000. ANCSA Regional Association is the largest contributor at $40,000.
That funding has paid for Kohlhaas’ services — signature gatherers can make up to $1 per signature — and the help of Harstad Strategic Research Inc., a Colorado-based firm that typically supports Democratic candidates and causes. Harstad was to conduct a telephone survey of voters.
Nationwide, higher voter turnout has favored liberal candidates. Poorer and minority voters tend to vote Democratic.
Reitmer said PFD Voter Registration is a nonpartisan effort, and Conerton said the same. “It’s honestly not just about getting the Democratic vote; it’s about getting every single vote,” Conerton said.
Juneauites interested in signing the PFD Voter Registration will find a signature gatherer at the Juneau Arts and Cultural Center during First Friday on Oct. 2.