Alaska's voting system 'has great merit'

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer was feeling pretty good about Alaska's election performance after returning from a convention of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

The convention, which focused on the chad-laden woes of Florida, also brought to light a number of other logistical, procedural problems, said Ulmer, who has secretary of state duties. In some cases people are allowed to vote even if county officials aren't able to consult each other about possible duplicate registrations, she told legislators this week.

"It was very disturbing to hear the lack of attention to detail," she said.

Ulmer said Alaska's state-run system, using optical scanning instead of punch cards, also avoids confusion resulting from different rules, machines and ballots among counties.

In Minnesota, a state that often leads the nation in voter turnout, Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said that Alaska's system "has great merit."

"Many problems would be solved by going that way," Kiffmeyer said. "Fran is a great gal."

Famous-infamous Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris did make an appearance at the convention in Washington, D.C., Ulmer said.

"She made a brief statement about how difficult her job had been, about how she had tried to follow the law as best she understood the law and that there was frustration on the part of many people with how much Florida is a patchwork quilt of many rules," Ulmer said. "She said she had a very rough time."

Asked if Harris appeared to be familiar with Alaska's system, Ulmer said simply: "No."

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So it was this week that Peggy Wilcox, an aide to Rep. Eric Croft, highlighted the fact that Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, put out a joint news release with Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jim Whitaker.

"None of the legislative lifers can remember it happening before," Wilcox said of the bipartisan statement.

The Capitol can be a polarized place. In a week in which state Democratic Party Chairman Scott Sterling of Wasilla was seen chatting amicably with staunchly conservative Republican Rep. Scott Ogan of Palmer, it seems anything is possible.

Oh, the Croft-Whitaker news release highlighted the legislative auditor's finding that the office of Gov. Tony Knowles didn't follow the "ideals of the procurement code" in awarding a non-competitive research contract for work on the proposed natural gas pipeline. So don't start singing "Kumbaya" just yet.

And there's still the urban-rural divide.

Sen. Dave Donley, an Anchorage Republican, seeks to debunk what he sees as a myth that rural Alaskans get short shrift in state budgeting. In a Web-posted white paper, Donley's basic point is that Anchorage, constituting 42 percent of the state population, is "consistently contributing more and getting less in the state budgeting process."

He complains that Anchorage gets only 30 percent of state foundation aid for K-12 education, even though it educates 37 percent of the students. While 40 percent of vehicle registrations are in Anchorage, Anchorage projects got only 17 percent of state transportation dollars during five years in the 1990s, he said. And Anchorage pays for law enforcement "that other Alaska communities receive free of charge," he said.

"It's not only free of charge; it's not there," replied Rep. Al Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat. "We've had people waiting for days with a dead body, waiting for a state trooper to show up."

As far as transportation projects, Anchorage "has a 40-year head start on the rest of us" in road construction, Kookesh said. And in education, Anchorage needs less money because it can spread out its fixed costs over a much larger population, he said.

"This kind of rhetoric just helps to perpetuate that urban-rural split, which is real as far as I'm concerned," Kookesh said. But he doesn't think that Donley represents the Republican majority. "I think this is a very minority position."

Quote marks:

"We can be Alaskans first and partisans second." House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, on possible changes to the primary election design

"Inasmuch as I have the gavel, I'll start out first." House Judiciary Chairman Norm Rokeberg, beginning the questioning of witnesses

"I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I went to high school in Palm Beach County." - Ogan, during a discussion of the Florida balloting irregularities

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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