Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly overrides mayoral veto of hybrid election system ordinance

The Betty J. Glick Assembly Chambers in Soldotna, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo)

The Betty J. Glick Assembly Chambers in Soldotna, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo)

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly voted to override a mayoral veto at their Tuesday meeting. The veto would have negated an ordinance the assembly passed last month to create a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system for the borough.

The vote was 6-3, with Norm Blakely, Kenn Carpenter and Jesse Bjorkman voting against the override.

The assembly passed an ordinance to create a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system at its June 3 meeting. Carpenter then asked for reconsideration of the ordinance, and that vote was held on June 16, where the assembly voted to keep the ordinance.

The ordinance creates a hybrid system consisting of both in-person voting locations and mail-in voting borough wide. The ordinance also amends rules for a runoff election, giving the borough an extra week between the regular election and the runoff election to allow more time for the clerk’s office to get ballot packages out.

The hybrid election system is set to be implemented in 2021.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce vetoed the ordinance. In his veto memo to the assembly, dated Monday, Pierce said the ordinance will “significantly” change the borough’s existing election process, and that borough residents should be able to vote on a change like that. Pierce also called into question the safety and security of mail-in voting processes, writing that the potential exists for fraudulent ballots to be mailed in. He referenced “other similar concerns stemming from the drastically reduced lack of neutral in-person guidance” at an in-person polling location, but was not specific.

Read the full veto memo here: kpb.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4586361&GUID=0A1AF297-79F3-4BFF-8B89-F88DEB6A62A8&Options=&Search=

Pierce also took issue in his memo with the idea of sending a ballot to every registered voter in the borough without them requesting one.

“It should be part of our civic duty to request a ballot,” Pierce wrote.

One of the claims made in Pierce’s veto memo was that the plan for a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail system does not make the number of polling centers or their hours of operation clear enough. During assembly discussion of whether to override the veto at the meeting, assembly member Willy Dunne said that, for some of his constituents, the new system will actually add polling locations where there previously were none.

“I have a number of constituents out East End Road who do not have the option of voting at a polling place,” he said. “They are a vote-by-mail district, and the hybrid voting system would actually give them the opportunity to go into a polling place or a vote center in order to cast their ballots. So it’s expanding rights, rather than retracting them.”

In his earlier assembly comments before the vote, Dunne referenced the lengthy public process the borough has engaged in to get to this point.

“We’ve gotten quite a bit of public comment on this, both before and after the veto,” Dunne said. “… As everybody’s aware, we’ve discussed this for quite a while. We had a very open, deliberative process for six months.”

After a complaint was lodged in 2015 by a blind man who alleged the borough discriminated against him on the basis of a physical disability by not providing ADA compliant voting equipment, the borough formed an Elections Stakeholder Group, which came out with six recommendations to improve elections on the peninsula. The hybrid election system is one of those six recommendations.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said assembly member Hal Smalley before the vote. “It allows options and it doesn’t take anything away from other voters. It just allows more opportunity and more options.”

In his comments before the vote, Bjorkman said the public is weighing in to some extent by communicating directly with the assembly, but that others are making their opinions known on social media.

“I think that the public has made it pretty clear how they feel about this issue in many arenas,” Bjorkman said. “… Voting by mail is already an option for every registered voter in this borough. … All registered voters can already vote by mail.”

Assembly member Tyson Cox cautioned against putting too much stock on polls or opinions that come from social media.

Assembly President Kelly Copper said she’s been disappointed by seeing misinformation in regard to the ordinance, and to voting by mail in general. She pointed to a Facebook post made by Pierce on June 13 that reads: “Do you want Borough-wide, MANDATORY VOTE BY MAIL?”

Voting by mail is not described as mandatory in the ordinance. It will be one of two options for voters, with the other option being in-person voting at polling places.

“The only thing they’re hearing is ‘mandatory,’ you’re gonna make me vote by mail,” Cooper said. “And that wasn’t the case, and so I think we have a responsibility when we put out misinformation.”

Pierce responded that he has “a First Amendment right just like you.”

“Well, and you also have a responsibility, when you talk about trust, to be accurate,” Cooper said.

Elsewhere in his comments, Pierce said he appreciates the work that the stakeholder group put in, and said it came out with a lot of good suggestions.

“I try to do the balance trick here and say, well, OK, I recognize both sides and I think there’s some good and bad in all of this,” Pierce said. “But again, you’re trying to address the voice of the people. … If it truly is your intent to provide that level of service … there are some that believe you don’t want things voted on because you know the outcomes. And if that is the case, if there really are enough people in this borough to go into a ballot box, vote by mail or however they vote, and they turn down … the desire to have that (system), why wouldn’t you respect that?”

In his assembly comments, Blakely said the referendum petition had about 85 signature booklets out circulating when he was last updated about it.

“The goal of that referendum is to overturn this action,” Bjorkman said. “It’s not, well, we’ll just put it on the ballot and see what happens. The goal of the referendum is to overturn this action. So if folks don’t like this hybrid vote by mail system — if you would rather see the assembly and the borough go in a different way to meet the ADA requirements (which is possible, we saw that laid out in the feasibility study) that’s a possibility.”

The referendum petitioners have until July 27 to submit the necessary signatures.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove incorrect information about what election year ballots would be sent out under the hybrid vote-by-mail election system. They would be sent when the system is set to become active, in 2021. It has also been corrected to say that 85 signature booklets are out for the referendum petition.

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