The Kenai Peninsula Borough will upgrade its voting equipment following assembly approval of roughly $270,000 for the initiative during the body’s Tuesday night meeting. The upgrade stems from a legal order for the borough to bring its voting systems into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The borough’s acquisition of ADA-compliant voting equipment was initiated by a complaint filed with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights by a voter who alleged that the borough discriminated against him by failing to provide a voting machine that accommodated his vision disability during the 2015 municipal election.
The commission offered the borough a conciliation agreement, instead of proceeding to a public hearing, that required the borough to adopt a voting system that allowed for private, independent voting by visually impaired citizens. The borough could have satisfied the complaint by adopting a hybrid election system that increased mail-in voting, but that option was defeated by borough voters.
The assembly in 2021 leased 26 ADA-compliant tabulators and purchased seven tabulators. Kenai Peninsula Acting Borough Clerk Michele Turner said Thursday that the borough will now purchase 26 tabulators and 20 ADA-compliant tablets. The borough previously purchased 10 tablets in 2021.
Multiple people who testified at Tuesday’s assembly meeting expressed skepticism about the use of machines to tabulate election results. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has used Dominion machines since 1999.
“I understand that machines are the way of the new age,” said Christine Hutchison, of Kenai. “I understand that. But when they lead people to be distrustful, and not wanting to vote, and all these other things, I think we should err on the side of getting rid of them.”
Ben Hanson, the borough’s former IT director, fielded questions from assembly members during Tuesday’s meeting regarding the borough’s current software, which he described as “declining technology.” The borough’s existing system, Hanson said, relies on legacy phone lines for poll workers to transmit votes.
“The current system that’s in place uses regular telephone lines,” Hanson said. “364 days out of the year, those telephone lines are disconnected. They are plugged in at poll close and it’s a phone call from the polling location to the central office just through the regular phone lines.”
The upgraded system, Hanson says, comes with a transition from landline phones to cellular modems. A communication from the Nikiski Rec Center, for example, would go to the closest cellphone tower, then to the borough building over Alaska Communications networks. The borough will still have paper ballots and conduct hand counts at some precincts.
Assembly member Bill Elam, who works in IT, said he has a problem with any data being transmitted wirelessly, even if the borough keeps paper ballots. Hanson said efforts to manipulate borough voter data would require breaking through multiple levels of encryption as well as bypassing firewalls.
“Practically, we are talking about something that is impossible,” Hanson told assembly members. “Because people in IT tend to speak … not want to speak absolutes, yeah, I can say a billion to one chance is still not impossible, right? A million to one chance is still not impossible. But functionally, if you look at what is at play, I think you could say, functionally, it is nearly impossible.”
Secure transmission of results is in addition to all of the other steps borough election workers take to protect chain-of-command and ballot security. The assembly in 2021 approved sweeping changes to the chapter of borough code that addresses elections, with the goal of codifying existing procedures and improving the security and integrity of elections.
Assembly members passed Tuesday’s ordinance by a vote of 7-1 with one absence. Elam voted in opposition.
Tuesday’s assembly meeting can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.us.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.