Alaska could reduce budget gap while raising participation at polls Increasing voters' interest

Posted: Sunday, September 01, 2002

They're gonna take away your permanent fund dividend check! You won't have it anymore. It'll be gone! Kaput! No more! That is all.

Now that I've got everybody's attention, let's talk about the dismal state of voting in Alaska. I won't waste anybody's time with the madness that was forced upon the state this past Tuesday. It was like when your parents said you could have only one flavor of ice cream, and whatever you picked you were stuck with. Well, sometimes a person feels like a swirl or Neapolitan.

Anyway, based on the numbers of registered voters who showed up Tuesday to the polls -- less than a quarter of the state's voting population -- it's apparent that we're in need of a change.

Fret not, kind reader. I've come up with a new way to encourage voting here in the 49th state. And, of course, based upon Alaska's peculiar individual state subsidy, we're the only state in the Union that could pull it off.

We should make voter participation an absolute requirement to participate in the one instance when the state gives residents "fish" to eat for a day -- the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

It's simple, you don't vote in that year's election, you don't get your piece of the permanent fund pie for that year.

Before I go further, I'll preface my idea with a few quick tidbits.

First, I did not vote in any 2001 Alaska elections as I arrived in the state too late to be qualified to vote. But I registered within a week of moving here and made my mark at the polls Tuesday.

Second, I did not vote in last year's New York statewide or Syracuse local elections because what right do I have deciding the fate of a place to which I have no intentions of returning?

Third, I am not currently eligible to file for the permanent fund. I will be in 2003, but why would I want to? In a state whose financial statements reflect imminent doom, and whose Legislature managed to spend more money in extra sessions to still come up with no solution, while at the same time cutting public services, is it fair for me to ever hold out my hand for a share of the "wealth"?

A former colleague's unnamed friend claimed she did not file for the dividend for similar reasons. She also said she would not apply, then donate the money to charity because she feared she lacked the willpower not to keep it. Not the case, here. I just don't want to burn any additional administrative expense my application might create.

Besides, I hardly miss something I never had. So you'll understand if I can live without the extra $1,500 to $2,000 taxable dollars.

Don't get me wrong. My wages as a reporter at the Clarion are far from stellar. Just as someone can be a sandwich away from being fat, I'm about a nickel shy of being broke. I can imagine a million ways those dividend dollars could make my life a little less miserable than it is now.

But all money ain't necessarily good money.

I digress.

Here's how the Voting Penalty Tax (snazzy name, no?) would work.

If you're eligible to register to vote and don't, you forfeit your permanent fund and the fund of any minors in your custody. If you just plain don't vote, you suffer the same consequences. But that's not all.

Since uninformed voters increase the chance of all kinds of politicians choking on pretzels and spouting off their mouths about how they're gonna get their dad's old foes, we need to have mandatory voter education. That way the constituency can learn about the issues and the candidates and vote wisely (at least, as wisely as each voter is capable of voting).

There will be two-hour mandatory classes offered daily that registered voters can attend throughout the months of August and September. That way, no one has to miss more than a few sitcoms or too much fishing.

In keeping with the the previously drawn-out rules of thumb, if in two months, you can't find your way into that class, kiss your dividend check goodbye. The response would be incredible. How many people would run to the polls and be eager to even show up where the learning is, just to be on the roll?

Some might even learn something and vote accordingly. Then we'd truly have a state government representative of the collective of Alaskans.

It's a pretty good bet that nobody agrees with this plan. I could be wrong, but I like my idea all the same.

But just in case you're really upset, just find the anonymous person or persons who accused me of being an escaped terrorist shortly following the events of Sept. 11. They should know where to find me.

Anyway, just as people have the right to express themselves, they equally deserve to exercise their Miranda Rights by remaining silent. In a perfect world, we would all want to understand the pressing issues of the day and go out and say what's on our mind and in our hearts at the polls rather than simply crying foul at everything we don't like from the side line or the bar stool. But that isn't always the case.

I'm not saying there aren't those who do make their voices heard each fall, but only 35 percent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's voting pool cast their votes in last year's borough elections. And I'm told that was a plus. Voter turnout declined over the last three gubernatorial elections, dropping from 65.7 percent in 1990 to 64.4 percent in 1994 and again to 50.1 percent in 1998.

Now, I don't want to go off on a rant, but those figures are absolutely repugnant.

I've managed to hear all sorts of opinions about what should or shouldn't happen in Juneau, at the borough building or at city hall, but the numbers don't speak to near the volume of the hemming and hawing that's made it past my ears in my year here.

People want their permanent fund and they want their roads paved, too, but too many don't want to tie up the drawstring on their fleece inactive wear and shuffle off their couches to put someone into office who will at least try to get them what they want.

If we could just accomplish that, then we might get public servants into office who listen more to constituents than to lobbyist dollars (regardless of where the legislature is), who don't sit on important decisions at the will of corporate giants, and who do live in the neighborhoods they're supposed to represent.

If my plan went into effect, I realize there are some who would worry because they need the annual allotment Alaska so wisely put aside for its sons and daughters years ago.

But there are people in other states throughout the United States with just as much need who don't get what we're availed, and yet they diligently cast their ballots in every election in the hopes of making a difference.

Here, simply by voting what you know to be best for you, the difference could two-fold. You cash in on a payoff at the bank and in having a hand in shaping the Alaska government you want.

And more than just the yearly fish to eat for a day, that's a fishing lesson that can last a lifetime.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Comments can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.



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