EDITORIAL: Small steps toward better elections for Alaska

May 6—Bipartisan cooperation on election reform wouldn't strike most Alaskans as likely. But as the legislative session winds down in Juneau, lawmakers have a chance to pass that rarest of bills: a helpful, even necessary piece of cross-aisle legislation that will help enfranchise more rural residents and make tweaks to help Alaska's elections run more smoothly.

Senate Bill 138 would make a handful of changes to Alaska's elections, primarily targeted at well-founded concerns raised by hiccups in the election process. Most notably, it would do away with unenforceable witness signature requirements for mailed ballots, an issue that caused the rejection of thousands of ballots in rural precincts during 2022′s by-mail special election. Along the same lines, SB 138 would offer residents whose ballots were in danger of rejection due to signature mismatches or other issues the opportunity to "cure" their ballot by verifying its authenticity. And although the state doesn't plan to conduct a mail-in election in the near future, both changes are worth making now, as they will apply to the substantial number of mailed absentee ballots each year. The high rate of rural ballot rejections last year was a big red flag that accommodations need to be made by lawmakers and more outreach needs to be done by the Division of Elections so that everyone who wants to cast a vote knows how to do so.

With that in mind, another of SB 138′s provisions is a particularly good idea: the requirement that the state send voters absentee ballots in Alaska Native languages when requested. It's an accommodation that should already have been in place due to the federal Voting Rights Act, but the state's efforts to comply with that law have been lacking thus far.

The bill is also notable (and commendable) for what it doesn't include. Despite partisan clamoring to ditch ranked choice voting, legislators have wisely chosen to steer clear of that morass and focus on election tweaks that are actually helpful. It's not for want of trying in some quarters. Rep. Sarah Vance rolled out a bill last week in committee that would revert Alaska's elections to its old system of partisan primaries and first-past-the-post voting, claiming her constituents had told her the new system was too confusing. If that's accurate, Vance's constituents are in the minority, because Alaskans who testified on her bill said they preferred the new system (and didn't find it confusing) by a three-to-one ratio. The 2022 also-rans Sarah Palin and Kelly Tshibaka are continuing their initiative efforts to overturn RCV, but the longer those quixotic quests go on, the more clear it is to voters that the pair are motivated by their own partisan interests rather than what's best for the state. Fortunately, SB 138′s stewards in the Alaska Senate have had the good sense to let RCV be.

Other items in the bill would make subtle but welcome tweaks to the way elections are conducted, such as provisions for more regular maintenance of voter rolls and guidance on counting absentee ballots that could give Alaskans a better sense of races earlier. Last year, the weeks-long wait for clarity on some legislative races left a bad taste in Alaskans' mouths; SB 138 would help address that issue. A further change that could help speed up election counting would be a slightly earlier postmark deadline for absentee ballots. Whether lawmakers add it to SB 138 or consider it in a future bill, that change would have Alaska's races decided quicker than the current two-week wait after Election Day.

On the whole, the bipartisan nature of the elections bill might be its second most surprising characteristic. The first: Rather than an ideologically driven piece of red-meat legislation, SB 138 is a truly old-school Alaska bill: a compendium of tweaks aimed at improving a system that's already working well, but could use a few modifications. It's what governance is supposed to look like, and we'd like to see more of it on even more consequential legislation. In the few weeks they have left in their regular session, legislators should pass SB 138.