Nov. 9, 2001 The Peninsula Clarion weighs digital democracy against partisan parochialism

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2001

Alaska, of course, is known for its spectacular scenery and wildlife.

It's also making a name for itself as a leader in ''electronic government,'' announced Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer in a visit to Kenai last week.

That may surprise those who think of the ''Last Frontier'' as a place where old ways prevail and ''new'' ways are at least a decade behind the times.

State officials are discovering technology is a way to make government more efficient, user-friendly and accessible. It has become a tool that erases the vast distances between communities in Alaska.

Two national organizations recently have recognized the state's high-tech efforts to bring government closer to the people.

Last month, the Center for Digital Government ranked Alaska No. 1 when it comes to ''digital democracy'' -- up from the No. 7 spot a year ago. The state also received third place last year as the most digital state in America -- up from ninth place in the 1999 ranking.

''Alaska has gone above and beyond to engage its citizens in democracy,'' said Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the center. The center ranked Alaska best among the states for a variety of services, including online public notices, information about elections and legislative actions, and the requirement that all public employees (including the governor and lieutenant governor) have an e-mail address.

In other national recognition, Alaska was one of only two states to receive the highest grade for election reform, according to a study released by Common Cause this week. Alaska and Minnesota both received an ''A'' in the state-by-state review of the nation's electoral systems one year after the fiasco in Florida that stalled the 2000 presidential election.

Alaska was way ahead of the rest of the nation on this front. Long before the elections process became a national crisis, Alaska instituted reforms. The state went from the punch-card voting system to modern optical scanning machines after Ulmer successfully lobbied the Legislature to make the change in 1998. This year, she is asking the Legislature to fund the new equipment for many of the state's smaller precincts, including Cooper Landing.

Unfortunately, the best technology in the world is no cure for the elections mess that awaits voters in the state's primary next August. All official political parties in Alaska will hold closed primaries in 2002, which will result in six separate ballots.

This is the result of the Legislature passing a bill that closed the primaries for all political parties in the state unless the party individually notified the Division of Elections by Sept. 1 to open its primary. The legislative action was in direct opposition to a task force recommendation that the state primaries should be kept as open as possible. The panel recommended that all registered voters be allowed to vote one open ballot that included all the parties' candidates unless a party asked to close its ballot to members of other political parties.

Already we feel sorry for elections workers.

At a time when the state is making every effort to get citizens more involved with government -- and getting national recognition for its efforts -- the Legislature's action is a step back into the Dark Ages. Legislators know that most Alaskans choose not to align themselves with any political party. Why, then, the effort to disenfranchise them with the most closed of primaries?

Voters registered as members of the Republican, Democratic, Green, Alaskan Independence, Libertarian and Republican Moderate parties will be restricted to voting their party's ballot. Undeclared and nonpartisan voters -- again, which most Alaskans are -- will be able to choose any one of the six ballots, but once they choose a primary ballot they will be restricted to voting only for candidates of the party.

Alaska's online access to state government, as well as its attention to the elections process, is making it possible for more citizens to participate more fully in the democratic process. It's the government version of over-the-top customer service.

And there's a simple reason for Alaska's success in this arena: ''We made it a priority,'' said Ulmer, who oversees elections in Alaska and chairs the state's Telecommunications Information Council.

We can only hope legislators and political parties will start seeing voters as their customers, make them a priority and work to change the closed primary system.

Alaskans aren't interested in partisan politics; the state's primary election should be a reflection of that.


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