Clerk’s Office Rejects Initiative for 'Ranked Choice' Voting

     The Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk’s office declined a ballot initiative that sought to increase voter turnout by using a vote by mail and ranked choice voting system. Some of the language in the ballot proposal may be at odds with state statute.

     Without question, voter turnout for most Borough-wide elections is pretty bad. In regular elections in October of 2011, just for one example, turnout ranged from just six percent in Tyonek to a whopping 28 percent in Cooper Landing.

     Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship says she thinks about numbers like that each election cycle.

     “Because it is incredibly disheartening to mail out 26,000 voter pamphlets and go the post office and see them stacked next to the trash. It doesn’t matter what the voter turnout is going to be, the election takes just as much time and costs the Borough just as much money…I take it personally. I want people to exercise their right and get out there and vote,” she said.

     In this area, Blankenship and James Price at least seem to be in agreement. More needs to be done to get voters involved in the process. Price, a realtor and commercial fisherman from Nikiski, is leading the charge for a group of citizens on the Better Elections Initiative. He sees decision by the clerk’s office as an arbitrary roadblock.

     “They constantly say these things, but yet they do nothing. Someone has to do something. This initiative solves a problem. I don’t see any alternative we have, they’ve provided no solution, all they’ve provided is obstruction,” Price said.

     The initiative does two things. It sends a ballot to every registered voter in the Borough to return by mail. It also provides for ranked choice voting in the event of a runoff. Here’s where things get tricky.

     “Ranked choice voting would essentially hold an instant runoff for all of the candidates. And state statute is very clear that if you have a runoff, you have to have it with the top two vote-getters. Period,” she said.

     In the system proposed by the Better Elections Initiative, voters would rank their candidates of choice, 1, 2, 3, and on down the line. In the event of a runoff, those rankings would determine the winner of a runoff by knocking out the bottom vote-getters until someone ends up with a majority of votes, plus one.

     The other half of the initiative, the vote by mail stuff; that was fine. It’s supposed to increase voter turnout, though that claim is a little difficult to substantiate. And it’s also supposed to save money.

     The basic math works out; the Borough appropriates about $120,000 for elections. The cost of sending a ballot to every voter works out to somewhere in the ball park of half that. Though, Blankenship says the final cost savings, if any, aren’t quite that easy to determine. Vote by mail would eliminate the need for on-site election officials, but each ballot would have to be tailored to each mailing address. Work that all have to be done on the front end. And depending on the precinct in which you live, you could have a lot of offices and positions to vote for. Think service area boards.

     “Currently, if you’re in one of those precincts, you would go in, you would go in, locate your residence on a map and from that point, the election official can make a determination as to what ballot type you’re going to get. So we would have to do all that work in advance.”

     The next step for all of this could involve the courts, Price says. He’s spoken with lawyers, one of whom works on behalf of ranked choice voting efforts, who tell him the Borough hasn’t got much of a case.

     “They’re successfully using their office to subvert the rights of the people through the initiative process. The Borough Clerk’s office is where the buck stops and the only alternative we have is to go back to court with it,” Price said.

     Blankenship says the Clerk’s office worked extensively with the Borough’s legal department to draw its conclusions on the ballot proposal.