Juneau voters will likely mail ballots in October

Juneau City Clerk Beth McEwen closes out an AccuVote machine count of absentee and questioned ballots with election workers Betty Cook and Tami Burgett at City Hall on Oct. 4, 2019. Juneau’s 2020 election by mail will require new machines, though the old ones were due for replacement anyway. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Juneau voters will likely be casting their ballots on local issues this fall by mail. 

The plan is for registered voters to get ballots in the mail, fill them out and then drop off or mail them back. That’s been an option for years, but you had to fill out a request to be mailed a ballot. 

It should be automatic this year. No lines to wait in, no voting booths and no polling sites.

On Monday, the Juneau Assembly unanimously called for the switch. They’ll partner with Anchorage’s municipal election team for help. Anchorage switched to elections by mail in 2018. The Juneau Assembly’s action is specific to this year’s Oct. 6 municipal election only. 

City Clerk Beth McEwen’s duties include running local elections. She recommended the switch and was largely motivated by risks and complications from the pandemic. 

“Right now, 90% of our workforce is in the high risk category for the COVID-19 pandemic,” she told Juneau Assembly members in a committee meeting on Monday.

The vast majority of poll workers are age 60 or over and the city’s polling sites don’t lend themselves to social distancing. 

McEwen estimated it will cost a lot more than a regular election, about $174,000 instead of $98,500. That’s mostly for new equipment, printing more ballots and sending more mail. But, since it’s in response to the pandemic, City Manager Rorie Watt said federal CARES Act relief money can cover the equipment costs. 

Voting by mail resolves social distancing issues with sending workers and voters to polling sites. But McEwen also needs a larger, secure space to count ballots in. 

That’s one way her counterpart in Anchorage, Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones, will help out. The clerks plan to do the actual ballot counting in Anchorage’s election center. 

Jones told the committee on Monday that her office, mayor and assembly have offered to help several jurisdictions with their by-mail elections. Juneau is the first to take them up on the offer

“Our first election by mail, the 2018 election, was a record turnout,” she said. “And we had no ballot shortages, so we did really well that first election.”

So while it will cost more, there will also likely be more voters.  

“By going to vote by mail, our overall costs have increased … but our cost per vote has decreased,” Jones said. 

Juneau Assembly member Wade Bryson reacted positively to that point. 

“That’s an excellent way to look at it, I had not taken that perspective, but I really appreciate that,” Bryson said. 

Juneau’s municipal voter turnout hit a 30-year low in 2007. That year, the Juneau Assembly changed local ordinances to allow elections by mail. But the option has never been used. 

In 2013, an Assembly member brought it up again, ahead of another record low turnout. Fewer than 1 in 5 registered voters cast ballots that year.