PALMER — The Palmer City Council approved a feasibility study for $3,000 in CARES act funds to hire Resource Data Inc., to conduct a feasibility study on voting by mail and also heard from Alaska Redistricting Board Executive Director Peter Torkelson on the upcoming Legislative apportionment.
Mayor Edna DeVries read a proclamation that May 16-26 be declared as Public Works week in Palmer and applauded Public Works Director Chris Nall.
“We’ve got a lot of hard working men and women in our Public Works Department and the success of the Public Works Department is because of them not because of me,” said Nall.
By a unanimous vote, the council approved a $250 community grant to the Alaska Farmland Trust for Drive Your Tractor to Work Day, which took place last week when dozens of tractors paraded through Palmer to celebrate the start of the growing season.
“I sure love tractors and just to see those kind of things rolling through our town is one of the neat, neat things within our community,” said Councilman Richard Best.
The meeting began with a brief presentation from Torkelson on the upcoming redistricting process, once census data has been received. In 1998, Alaska voters opted to change the responsibility for redistricting to an independent, five-member board to redraw legislative districts every 10 years when the census is taken. The count of Alaska residents released on April 16 was 733,391. Torkelson said that each of the 40 legislative districts drawn will now aim to represent an average of 18,355 people.
“The census data will be coming, we don’t know exactly when. Covid has delayed the census. Census told us it’s coming Sept. 30, then they got sued, now they’re saying it’s coming August 16, we don’t really know. It’s coming sometime late July, mid August, that’s the trigger point,” said Torkelson. “When that data is officially received we have 30 days to adopt one or more proposed redistricting plans and 90 days to adopt a final plan. Between those two dates from day 30 to day 90, we will take all the proposed plans on a road show and we’ll be back with maps for you to look at, for any member of the public to tell us what they think this line should be here and not here and here’s why.”
Using $3,000 in appropriated CARES act funding, Action Memorandum 21-034 passed the council 4-3 to pay Resource Data Inc., to conduct a feasibility study for voting by mail. The council held committee on the whole discussions twice last year and again in March of 2021 concerning election processes and Councilwomen Julie Berberich and Dr. Jill Valerius sponsored the measure to conduct the study.
“I guess I just still struggle with it has the term feasibility study in it but it’s written so much to the point of this is going to happen it just I don’t know, it just seems like its missing aim to me,” said Councilman Steve Carrington. “I struggle with it and I realize it’s CARES money and it’s no skin off our nose but I guess I just struggle with something kind of being a bit lopsided in the way it’s written up.”
Councilman best asked for clarification if the feasibility study aimed to end all in-person voting.
“If you read the proposal and in the packet you will see that there are no recommendations at this point but they do talk about how there could be in person voting. This is just due to the way that the world has changed, what we consider to be our new normal, now people are looking for different ways to be able to be a part of the process .This is just a study to see how the city of Palmer, if it’s even a feasible thing for the city of Palmer. It is an opportunity for us to look into modernizing how we perform our elections, that’s it,” said Berberich. “And if you listen to some of the comments that we heard earlier today, it’s a way for more people to vote because we really have quite a dismal turnout in our elections.”
Resource Data Inc., assisted Juneau and Anchorage with vote-by-mail studies and implementation and assisted the Kenai Peninsula Borough in a feasibility study. The letter written to the council by RDI Anchorage Branch Manager Diane Thompson said the study would include examining needs such as physical space, site and cyber security, pricing of equipment, staffing costs and supply needs.
“Palmer already provides some absentee by mail voting, so it has procedures in place for handling mailed ballots. That procedure is more time consuming than most VFHS processes, but does give Palmer a good base of experience to start from. Palmer may need new ordinances to allow voting from home, in addition to such things as new ballot handling procedures and USPS approved return ballot envelope design,” wrote Thompson.
Councilman Brian Daniels noted that vote by mail and absentee voting are separate things. When asked by Mayor DeVries if he was comparing it to the Anchorage election system, Daniels agreed.
“I get the idea that we want to encourage but I’m not secure in the idea that there isn’t people being disingenuous with some of the ballots that are coming back in in those situations,” said Councilman Richard Best. “That’s just my feeling. That’s nothing that there’s proof of that I have to expose, but when you go to the post office and you see a boat load of them in the garbage can, it’s an uneasy feeling that there is opportunity for somebody to maybe as a joke or what not kind of fill it out and send it in.”