Mat-Su Borough Assembly votes to hand-count all ballots

Voters cast their ballots in the Aug. 16 elections. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

The Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted at its Oct. 4 meeting to hand-count ballots for future elections. After the 5-1 decision, with Assembly member Stephanie Nowers the only no vote, the borough will no longer have voting machines beginning in 2023.

Currently, paper ballots are fed through the machines to count votes, so there has always been a paper backup for machine counting in the borough. Hand counts will still be conducted after a machine count for this November’s election.

More than two dozen residents who spoke at the meeting, most in favor of the legislation, noted a variety of concerns. Those included lack of confidence in vote counting, reports of machine hacking, reported falsification of voting records and voting machines sharing data to other countries. About 20 letters from residents opposed to the legislation were also included in the Assembly packets, according to Nowers.

Nearly 30% of Mat-Su voters turned out for the November 2020 elections, but turnout for the July 2022 special election was less than 8%.

Nowers asked borough clerk Lonnie McKechnie if there was a plan for hand-counting at the precincts in the event of a staff shortage.

“How do we deal with inclement weather or for whatever reason somebody’s car breaks down and the next shift that’s going to do the count cannot get there?” Nowers said. “Do we have a way to deal with that because we’re saying that it needs to be counted at the precinct?”

“At this point we do not have a plan for that. That’s something I would have to have to come up with,” McKechnie said. “However, with regards to how it’s written in this ordinance, if I don’t get a count done at the precinct because somebody can’t get there… I am now violating code.”

During the hearing, multiple residents and Assembly members brought up the high cost of the machines. The borough paid $72,000 to lease the voting machines for one year, with an expiration of June 30, 2023. That is less than 1% of the overall borough budget of more than $430 million.

Nowers also asked about costs in the future. McKechnie said that there will be an additional estimated cost of $7,000 to hand-count during this year’s election to verify the machine counts. However, McKechnie said, moving forward hand counting would cost less than leasing the voting machines.

Nowers proposed to continue the hearing until Feb. 7, and to have a special meeting for a comprehensive discussion following this year’s election procedures. She said this would give the Assembly the opportunity to iron out details and identify any problems that might arise from a hand-counting requirement, adding that she didn’t want to continuously change the ordinance but to get it right the first time.

Other Assembly members, including Dee McKee, disagreed. 

“I appreciate Stephanie’s idea that this is so important that we’ve got to get it right, and now I’m going to add the however,” McKee said. “There’s a time to get it right but there’s a time to get it done.”

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