Though still a few months away, Anchorage is getting ready for its first election set to be conducted by mail. In April, as residents pick a mayor and weigh in on a controversial public bathroom measure, they won’t be heading to the usual polling locations. Instead, they’ll be sending envelopes to a white, rectangular sorting machine that arrived at the city’s election center Monday morning. Moving trucks backed up to an expansive warehouse that’s largely empty, save for clusters of new election equipment and computers. Half-a-dozen workers used wrenches and drills to take apart shoulder-high wooden crates. The cargo inside was metal sorting trays and a boxy machine that resembles a filing cabinet. The official name is the Bell and Howell Envelope Intake and Signature Verification System, Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser explained. Moser is responsible for overseeing much of the multi-year process converting Anchorage to a Vote By Mail election system. The Bell and Howell machine cost the municipality $610,599, and the Anchorage Assembly voted to include an additional $56,790 contract for installation and continued support.
This particular piece of equipment is a crucial part of the new order. Voters will now get ballots sent to them 21 days before an election. They can turn ballots in at any time, either by mail, putting them inside giant metal deposit boxes distributed across town, or at a drop-off site. When the envelopes arrive at the election center by Ship Creek, the Bell and Howell machine starts comparing signatures to those on record, and sorting valid ballots to tabulate the votes.
“We’ll be able to do this process for weeks before the election, and we’re going to be scanning the results but not finalizing them,” Moser said. “So on election night we will be able to report results as the polls close.”
The change only affects local municipal elections, like those for mayor, assembly and school board seats, along with bonds and ballot propositions. For state and federal elections in November there will still be 122 polling sites set up across the city.