Alaska Vote Puts PFD “Cash Cow” to Work in Elections


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On Tuesday, Alaska voters approved a plan that puts a state-specific spin on the growing popularity of so-called automatic voter registration (AVR). Bloomberg Businessweek has more:

The same day Alaskans delivered their state to Donald Trump, they voted nearly two to one to embrace a progressive new voter-registration reform.

Under the new law, passed by referendum Tuesday, Alaskans who sign up to receive their annual payouts from the state’s oil wealth trust will also automatically be added to the state’s voter rolls.

The vote makes Alaska the sixth state to have approved some form of automatic voter registration. Just two years ago, there were none.

 “We should take advantage of any opportunity to cut waste and stop forcing people to fill out more and more forms,” the state’s U.S. senator, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said in a statement celebrating the result.

More than 63 percent of Alaskans voted in favor of automatic registration, thanks in part to its almost comically broad range of supporters—including Sullivan, the Democrat he ousted in 2014, the state’s other current U.S. senator, the state AARP and ACLU, BP, the Alaska Conservation Voters, unions, and industry groups.

“We have certain community members that need to cross rivers and drive 30 miles or 60 miles to a voting location,” Kim Reitmeier, the executive director of the Alaska Native business group ANCSA Regional Association and a co-chair of the campaign for the initiative, said in an interview in June. “Automatic voter registration is taking one step out of our crazy busy lives and trying to make it a little easier.”

Supporters say the law—which will give Alaskans the chance to opt out of being added to the rolls, rather than restrict voting to those who opt in by getting themselves registered—could create one of the most complete and accurate U.S. state voter registries of all time.

What makes Alaska unique – and has proponents excited – is the use of Permanent Fund Dividend data as the basis for the program:

[R]ather than register people through the DMV, as other AVR states do, Alaska’s new system will use the state’s Personal Fund Dividend Division, which handles its annual oil-wealth payouts. Not everyone gets a driver’s license, but in Alaska, almost nobody neglects to sign up each year to get their free dividend check.

Alaska’s oil cash is unique, but its passage Tuesday of automatic registration underscores voting-rights advocates’ larger ambitions—to spread the policy beyond blue states and from the DMV to a wider range of agencies with access to citizens’ data.

Opponents are unconvinced:

While top elected Republicans embraced the referendum, and the Alaska GOP stayed neutral, some of its activists came out against it. “There are people out there who don’t know diddly squat about our country,” former state party chairman Peter Goldberg told the Alaska Dispatch News last month. “And I’m not comfortable with people that are totally ignorant about our system voting.”

The article goes on to discuss AVR efforts in other states, but I’ll be curious to see if Alaska’s use of PFD becomes an issue in those efforts – especially given that the PFD data is supposed to be so much better than DMV data. If Alaska’s experience with PFD-powered registration is as positive as supporters hope, it could give AVR opponents elsewhere cover to argue that their states should wait until they have access to data of similarly high reach and quality. Given concerns about the quality and reach of much DMV data, that argument could get some traction.

Still, it’s interesting to see Alaska’s “cash cow” put to work in elections – and it will certainly help shape the issue for the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned …

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