Never question your ballot again

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2007

My son, Allan, asked me to write this article as a lesson in civics, or how a small stone cast out on a lake can cause a ripple that reaches a distant shore.

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In 1968, I was in the Alaska Legislature and Republican chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee. We were working on a revision of the Alaska election code. The lieutenant governor at the time was Keith Miller, and, as I recall, he was concerned that only valid registered voters should be permitted to vote, a position strongly endorsed by many conservative Republicans.

In Section 12 of the bill we were working on in committee, it stated specifically that "on election day a qualified voter voting in person shall vote only at the polling place designated for the precinct of his residence." We approved these words.

But in our committee, my fellow senator from Ketchikan, Democrat Bob Ziegler, asked what if a voter is confused and goes to the wrong precinct?

We added a new definition in Section 15 of the bill under the title, "Questioning a Voter's Ballot." It read that "if the voter is unable to prove that he is qualified to vote at the polling place for that precinct ... the voter shall be allowed to vote" and the ballot shall be considered a challenged ballot.

Although this contradicted the original language, both Ziegler and I approached the issue with adroit caution so as not to offend the lieutenant governor and the 14-6 Republican majority in the Senate.

The bill was adopted by the Senate and House and became law.

From such little seeds mighty trees grow.

I believe that today we have the most liberal of election codes. The possible ambiguity in our original effort has been clarified in later legislation and administrative oversight.

Today, if a person registered to vote in Precinct No. 1 in Juneau, but goes to Precinct No. 4, he or she can cast a questioned ballot, which will be counted in the final tally.

Or if a downtown voter by mistake votes in the Mendenhall Valley the vote will be counted but only for area wide contests.

Or if a Juneau voter is in Nome on election day he or she can vote a questioned ballot but of course only the choice for statewide or national contests will be counted.

I suppose our initial intention was mainly to help voters, many new to Alaska and validly registered, who in our larger cities might be honestly bedeviled by a number of nearby precincts.

I think this is a model in willingness to assist the voting public. Think of the example of other states in contrast.

My thanks to Hanna Stickel of the State Division of Elections, who kindly sent me copies of the current election statutes and explained how the system works.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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