A proposal in the Alaska Legislature aiming to protect the privacy of those voting by absentee ballot got its first hearing in the Senate State Affairs committee Thursday.
House Bill 36 by Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, seeks to address the practice by the Alaska Democratic Party during the 2004 election of turning in absentee ballot requests to the State Division of Elections on behalf of voters, while asking voters to include personal information on the request forms such as e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.
Laura Glaiser, director of the state Division of Elections, said the personal information marked as required on the Democrats' request form is not required by the state.
"What we care about is that all your information went through the mail open-faced," she said.
Glaiser said that last fall the division received thousands of absentee voter requests with return addresses for a post office box held by the Alaska Democratic Party. Without a personal address the request is invalid, she said.
"My first concern is that it didn't come to us first," Glaiser said.
She said the issue raises concerns that the party might have been "caging voters," or collecting personal information on those who filled out the absentee requests.
With thousands of absentee requests pouring in during the weeks leading up to the election, Glaiser said the elections division attempted to contact by phone and mail about 900 people who's requests were not valid.
She said some of the ballots were received by the division a month after the requester signed the form, prompting Lt. Gov. Loren Leman to send Division of Elections staff to accompany the Democratic Party to the post office daily to retrieve incoming absentee ballots.
Ultimately, the elections division processed the absentee requests. Therriault and Gov. Frank Murkowski have filed bills in the Legislature requiring absentee ballot requests be delivered directly to the Division of Elections and not through a political party.
"Although there is not clear evidence of illegal action or wrongdoing, individual Alaskans should not feel that their privacy is under attack just because they wish to participate in a regularly scheduled election," Therriault said in the bill's sponsor statement.
More than 29,000 people statewide voted by absentee ballot in 2004, Glaiser said. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, acknowledged the concerns raised by the proposal, but said, "We want to find a solution that doesn't diminish absentee ballot requests."
Scott Sterling, who served as Democratic Party chairman at the time of the incident, did not respond to calls made by the Empire Thursday.
Current Party chairman Jake Metcalfe said he was not involved in the absentee drive but, "If the intent is to clear up uncertainties, then maybe that's not bad. If the goal is to make it harder for people to vote, then that raises serious questions."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothy.inklebarger@ juneauempire.com.