An citizen initiative seeking to transform local elections into a vote-by-mail system with ranked choice voting (RCV) was rejected this week by the borough clerk for “administrative and fiscal issues.”
In a seven-page response to the initiative’s primary sponsor, Nikiski resident James Price, Kenai Peninsula Borough clerk Johni Blankenship said that some issues with the vote-by-mail language would not cause the measure to fail a pre-election review, but that the sought RCV conflicts with state law.
“Most problematic is that the RCV system proposed conflicts with (state law) requiring that a runoff be between two candidates with the greatest number of votes,” Blankenship wrote in her conclusion.
Price and cosponsor Fred Sturman represent a committee of 16 borough residents seeking the electoral changes. They claim that doing so will promote greater voter turnout. They also claimed the new system would do away with costly run off votes in races such as the mayor’s office.
Ranked choice voting requires the voter to rank candidates in numerical order of preference rather than simply voting for a single candidate over another. Cities such as Portland, Maine and Oakland, Calif. employ this type of voting.
Price said Blankenship’s response is simply “obstructive” and in keeping with a borough effort to disallow the voter initiative process to take place.
“We cannot give in,” he said.
Largely at issue is the proposal’s wording. Blankenship said it was unclear if the initiative seeks to require the repeal of in-person voting or if vote-by-mail elections be added to the existing voting option.
Also directed by the initiative, as written, is a requirement that all laws in conflict with the new voting methods be repealed. Blankenship said the Assembly cannot repeal laws adopted by the state legislature.
“Therefore nor can the borough voters,” she said.
Under state law only elections for mayor, the governing body and school board are eligible for run-off elections.
Price says that RCV would not be in conflict with state law because the statute governing the issue defers to borough law in a cases of conflict. Rather than rewrite the initiative to suit the clerk’s interpretation, he expects to take the issue into the courts. Removing the RCV and leaving only the vote-by-mail would create a “more imperfect system” that favors incumbents over grass roots candidates, he said.
District 3 Assemblyman Ray Tauriainen represents Price and his neighbors in borough affairs. Tauriainen said he favors the current method of voting in person at polling places, but could open to the idea if residents voted for vote-by-mail.
Sturman said that local voter turnout peaked at 35.5 percent in the 2001 elections whereas vote-by-mail jurisdictions see more that 50 percent voter turn out in “every election.”
A 2011 King County Washington Elections Report concluded that no voter turn out gain was reached by going to an all vote-by-mail system. Between the 2009 general election and the 2011 election King County, then the largest vote-by-mail jurisdiction in the nation, saw 53 percent voter turn out equally before and after the change to vote-by-mail. In all 35 elections were looked at, 28 prior to vote-by-mail and eight following its implementation.
Greg Skinner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org