Poll workers get ready for changes

Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2002

Voters going to the polls Tuesday will face more than a handful of party ballots, and state elections workers are busy getting ready to clear up any confusion.

They also are ready to take a little heat from voters who may be ready to express their dissatisfaction with the new, six-ballot system.

"I voted (absentee) here in Juneau today," Division of Elections Director Janet Kowalski said Friday. She'll be in Anchorage Tuesday, she said.

Kowalski said the Juneau office already had reports of at least two voters who were confused at having to select a party ballot in order to vote.

"Some came in and were quite surprised they had to choose," she said.

Publicity about the new divided ballot has been intense. It was brought when the Republican-led Legislature reacted to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a California case and passed a law separating the primary into separate party ballots.

To vote, say, for Republican Party candidates, voters now must be registered as Republicans, nonpartisan, undeclared or "other" in order to select the Republican ballot. Registered Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Republican Moderates or members of the Alaskan Independence Party cannot. Similar restrictions accompany the ballots of other parties.

Gone are the days when voters could pick and choose among all candidates regardless of party affiliation.

Many Alaskans have expressed anger over the new system, while others say it is a fairer way for parties to determine who runs to represent them in the general election in November.

Weeks ago, Kowalski expressed some concern that angry voters might take their ire out on hapless poll workers who had nothing to do with changing the law. However, by and large, voters seem to understand the new system, or at least are familiar with it because of news coverage.

"Based on the e-mails I got this morning, some people are still discovering this," she said.

"I've been doing this since 1965," said Dorothy Lentz, a Nikiski resident who was handling absentee and early voting Friday at Kenai City Hall. With her was Beverly Welborn, also of Nikiski, who has been doing poll work nearly as long. Lentz will work at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School on Tuesday.

"We do it because we enjoy it thoroughly, she said. "The people are great."

Lentz said things had been fairly quiet, but she expected that Monday would be busier.

"Tuesday is anybody's guess," she said. "There are six ballots. A few have been confused. As a whole, they are pretty well advised."

She said she's answered a few questions and looks forward to answering more Tuesday.

Nita Douthit of Sport Lake and Lori Seymour of Kenai were working the poll at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Building Friday. Douthit has been doing the job for about a dozen years, Seymour for 18. Both are ready for Tuesday.

Douthit said they'd been provided with a couple of handouts that would answer some common questions regarding the new election procedures. They also have copies of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. For the answers to other questions, voters will be directed to call the Division of Elections. So far, though, things have gone smoothly, Douthit said.

"We have had real understanding folks," she said. "People on the whole have been very good about everything."

Douthit said the turnout was light at the beginning of last week, but got busier as the weekend approached.

"It's been a predictable turn-out."

Kowalski said the 2000 election, in which the division had to quickly train workers on new regulations so they could handle the two ballots that election needed, helped in training workers for the 2002, six-ballot affair.

"During training we brought out the fact that we had concerned voters," she said.

Poll workers can only go so far in helping voters, however. They can answer basic questions but cannot offer their opinions about the six-ballot primary or on any candidate or issue. The must be entirely neutral, Kowalski said.

"We don't anticipate any real problems," she said. "Most people who have had concerns have expressed them directly to the division."

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