Some days, you just can’t help but feel like the hyperspace byway construction has begun, and you’ve been left without a clue or a towel.
Technology can often seem to derive inspiration from science fiction, and Douglas Adams must be laughing at us from his booth, high above, at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Before the world wide web showed up to save us from our miserable selves, policy changes could be found neatly detailed, in fine print, on page 637 of whatever legal documents we were tasked with consuming before signing on this or that dotted line. Not much has changed, except analog has given way to the digital era, and that key detail alerting us to the fact that everything has changed is conveniently located for our viewing pleasure buried somewhere within the entire internet.
Now, it’s as if everything is in constant flux, with terms of services changing underneath our feet. Which Roman Statute shall we pretend protects us today?
Last week, another retroactive change in the terms of agreement was proposed. Anchorage Ordinance 38, sponsored by Assemblyman Chris Birch, seeks to reinstate an absentee voter policy dropped by the municipality two years ago. It would make the physical addresses of absentee voters public information.
“This ordinance is intended to restore the public right of access to the addresses where absentee ballots are being sent – the way it has been in Anchorage since unification in 1975 until last year,” Assemblyman Birch told me.
Two years ago, Anchorage Municipal Attorney Dennis Wheeler recommended changes to the way absentee voter information is disseminated. Up until 2012, voters who filed to vote absentee had to provide, as part of the public record available to anyone, their name and physical address within the municipality.
Voting absentee tends to offer the impression that one won’t be at their residence for a period of time surrounding the election date. This is useful to candidates who wish to send campaign literature and reminders to their would-be constituents to vote.
Criminals have another term for this: a window of opportunity. Potential burglars could simply call the municipal clerk’s office and ask for a list of presumably vacant homes.
This concern prompted Jim Stevens, a member of Anchorage’s election commission, to object. Stevens told the Assembly that the commission had determined the “resolution is not really a good idea.”
Former GOP Chairman, Randy Ruedrich, disagrees. Ruedrich commissioned his own legal opinion, in Wheeler’s absence, which found that “the Anchorage Municipal Code appears to affirmatively require that absentee ballot mailing addresses are public records that the municipality must make available to the public.”
Ruedrich told the Assembly that keeping addresses private hurts voter turnout. “You throw a party, somebody might ought to come,” he testified last Tuesday. “We have no information because the state allows you to suppress your residential address.”
State of Alaska voter registration applications allow voters to specify that they’d like to keep their addresses confidential. This ordinance doesn’t seek to interfere with that. The point of contention is that AO-38’s change in confidentiality would be retroactive to include this year’s municipal election. Over 600 Anchorage residents have already filed for absentee ballots, this year, under the understanding that their addresses would be kept confidential. This would change the terms underneath their feet.
To Birch and Ruedrich, access to these addresses would strengthen the accessibility between voters and candidates. But Midtown Assemblyman Dick Traini said, only half jokingly, that such a change could end up with people showing up on absentee voters’ doorsteps “with a U-Haul truck.”
Traini told me that any changes should be presented to voters before they request an absentee ballot, not after. “You don’t change it midstream.”
“One of the concerns is a potential for fraud,” Birch told the Assembly last week. He cited a New York Times article from 2012 (also featured in the opinion commissioned by Ruedrich) that highlighted a Florida school board race where 80 absentee ballots came from just nine addresses. “I am not aware of a similar problem here,” Birch conceded, “but we have only just begun to restrict public access to this information – a unique situation in Alaska and I understand, in this country.”
The Assembly’s Attorney, Julia Tucker, felt that Wheeler should be allowed to defend the policy change he coordinated. She explained her concerns to the body during last Tuesday’s meeting:
Without Mr. Wheeler being here, you have an opinion that was issued, reviewed, questions were asked of Mr. Wheeler about this in an open work session. And then when Mr. Wheeler is not here, on the eve of an assembly meeting, you have outside retained counsel coming in and giving you a different opinion. And there just isn’t enough time to have any kind of independent review. And, so, from my standpoint, I think that if there are serious legal questions here, which I think there are, than it may behoove the assembly to wait until Mr. Wheeler can respond rather than risking acting outside legal parameters.
That sufficed as ample reason to delay any further action until the March 25 meeting. Traini said he hoped that the delay would cause any changes to confidentiality to take affect next year and not catch hundreds of current absentee voters (who did not consent to the changes) by surprise. Assembly members Chris Birch and Amy Demboski opposed the delay. Demboski did not respond to inquiry.
The Assembly’s decision will ultimately decide where the municipality draws the line between transparency and confidentiality in future elections. It’s an important question with no full proof answers and a lot of changing technology. Changing the terms and conditions underneath voters’ feet is a concerning precedent to set when it could expose homes to unwanted attention. The Assembly would be best advised to tread carefully.