May 1: Anchorage Daily News on making it easier for citizens to vote:

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2000

By a 9-0 vote, the Anchorage Assembly last week approved a polling station for the University of Alaska Anchorage to make it easier for faculty members and students to vote in the mayoral runoff May 2.

University representatives had asked for a polling place for the regular city election but were denied by the municipal clerk's office even after an Assembly recommendation to open another polling place there. That and criticism by elections coordinator Rosemary Slisz about Linda Spencer, a UAA student, rightly riled some Assembly members, including chairman Kevin Meyer and Allan Tesche.

After the unanimous vote Tuesday, Municipal Clerk Jane Ferguson wasted no time. She contacted the U.S. Justice Department, as required by law, to get its blessing for the polling place. Even before the Assembly's vote, Ms. Ferguson contacted the UAA chancellor's office to talk about the best way to set up a polling place.

To her credit, she got religion about the Assembly's marching orders.

''When the leader of the troops says take that hill, ... that's where we're going,'' she said.

But Assemblyman Dan Sullivan said he had second thoughts about setting up a new polling place just days before the runoff election. So on Wednesday, he filed a motion to reconsider his vote. Assemblyman Dan Kendall seconded the motion. That effectively killed the UAA polling place for May 2.

''For me, the bottom line is it's a real disappointment,'' Assemblyman Meyer said. While he didn't say the reconsideration was pure politics, he said he thought it was clear that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Kendall are conservatives inclined to support George Wuerch for mayor and perhaps worried that a heavy turnout of university voters might tilt a close election to Mark Begich.

''One may draw that conclusion,'' Mr. Meyer said -- although he added that it wasn't clear to him which candidate might gain by a polling station at UAA, given the cross-section of the community represented there.

Mr. Sullivan said he wasn't thinking of Mr. Wuerch's chances when he decided to reconsider. While he fully supports a polling place at UAA, he said he didn't want to ''jeopardize the integrity of elections'' by making changes so close to an election and didn't think the Justice Department would act by May 2, anyway.

Also, he intends to introduce an ordinance that would require any voting changes to be enacted at least 60 days before an election to avoid appearances of last-minute favor to any camp or candidate.

''I don't think too many people are disenfranchised from voting in this town,'' Mr. Sullivan said.

He's right about that. While the state has operated a polling place at the university and increased voter participation there, no one from UAA is denied the right to vote in his or her regular precinct, to vote absentee if work or travel makes it harder on election day or to vote a questioned ballot at any precinct.

Still, the Assembly and city should be eager to make it as easy and convenient as possible for all citizens to vote -- particularly when a group of citizens appeals to the city to do just that. That's the case with the UAA group's request.

Thorny problems of logistics and staffing must take second place to encouraging citizen participation in democratic government. The polling station should have been in place for April 4 and May 2.

Chances are it will be come the next city election in April 2001. Better late than never.



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