By: Grace Greenberg-Spindler
Alaska’s automatic voter registration law went into effect March 1, 2017, making Alaska one of ten states, the fourth state to do so in this year, to enact such legislation. The new bill was introduced through Ballot Measure 1 (15PFVR), which passed in the November 8, 2016 referendum with more than 63% of support from Alaskan voters. The bill also received bipartisan support from Republican leaders Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux as well as Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins and former Sen. Mark Begich.
Unlike most automatic voter registration states, Alaska does not use DMV records but registers eligible individuals to vote when they sign up for the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). The Permanent Fund was created in 1976 to protect the proceeds of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline by putting at least 25% of the oil money into a dedicated fund. Money from the fund is distributed to eligible Alaskan residents in the form of dividends.
Using the PFD for automatic voter registration improves on the current automatic voter registration model in two significant ways. First, the PFD Automatic Voter Registration will increase voter security. Alaska already employs a strict vetting process through the PFD Division to ensure state residency and prevent fraudulent receipt of PFD benefits. Second, supporters of the bill argue that the PFD Automatic Voter Registration will reach more people than if Alaska were to use DMV records to register voters. Alaska is not the only state to experiment with using different agencies with access to citizen’s data. Rhode Island, which passed its automatic voter registration law in July of 2017, is looking to expand from using DMV data for automatic voter registration to additional state agencies once those agencies can ensure voter eligibility. Essentially, these measures would create a more secure voter registration process by employing vetting procedures from other government agencies and capture a more representative voter base that includes non-drivers.
The PFD Automatic Voter Registration in Alaska is the most recent effort to increase access to the voting booth. Previously, Alaska allowed online voter registration. Minorities and tribal communities in Alaska have traditionally had problems with access to the polls, being largely underrepresented in voter rolls. In previous election cycles Alaskan natives accounted for 15% of the state population, but only made up 7% of registered voters. The Alaska Division of Elections estimates that this measure will add about 70,000 new voters to the rolls.
Not all Alaskans are happy about automatic voter registration. Some are concerned about costs. The bill does come with a price tag of $942,885 for the initial roll-out of the program and a recurring annual cost of $300,000. However, sponsors and supporters of the bill believe these costs to be overinflated, arguing that it does not account for efficiency savings due to the streamlined process. Other opponents to the bill believe that lowering the barrier to vote will result in “people too uninformed or disinterested” being registered. Despite opposition to automatic voter registration, legislatures all over the country are considering implementing similar measures. In 2017 thirty-two states so far have considered automatic voter registration laws. Alaska may not have been the first state to pass automatic voter registration, but it will certainly not be the last.