Campaigners march boxes of signatures for the ballot initiative over to the Division of Elections in Anchorage on Thursday (1-14-16). (Courtesy photo)

A statewide effort with Sitka roots to make voting easier culminated today when petitioners submitted thousands of signatures to the Division of Elections. Supporters of the ballot initiative are hoping in the future residents will be simultaneously signed up to vote when they submit for their annual checks.

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The campaign began late last year in Anchorage and snowballed to other communities, including Sitka, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, Bethel and Fairbanks. Overall, the PFD voter ballot initiative – a proposal that automatically registers people to vote at the same time they apply for their yearly payouts—has gained support from some 42,000 Alaskans. That’s nearly double the number it needed to make it on a ballot in case some signatures were invalid. Here’s John-Henry Heckendorn, the Anchorage-based campaign manager for the PFD voter initiative.

“We’re confident that by overshooting the required mark by so much we’re going to make it onto the ballot,” he said.

After the Division of Elections combs through all the signatures, the proposal will likely show up in August’s primary or November’s general elections. Then, it will be up to voters.

Heckendorn says the “common sense” initiative was born out of a working group on elections reform, organized by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, and gained support across party lines.

The PFD voter ballot initiative is endorsed by a broad spectrum of agencies, including the NAACP, the League of Women voters and the Alaska Federation of Natives. The majority of the campaign’s funding has come from ANCSA Regional Association, Alaska Conservation Voters and the ACLU of Alaska.

Heckendorn says the group’s main arguments for merging voter registration with PFD applications is to make it easier for people to vote and to make state government more efficient by reducing redundancies and papwerwork.

Residents are required to be registered to vote 30 days before elections.

“This initiative is a move towards using resources we already invested in to do double or even triple duty,” he said. “Alaska has one of the lower rates of active voter registration in the U.S. This initiative would make Alaska’s voting system the most accurate voting system of any state in U.S. history and that’s huge.”

The working group, which included Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, modeled their initiative after Oregon’s Motor Voter Law, which automatically registers people to vote when they renew or apply for a driver license or state ID at the DMV.

Zoe Kitchel, Sitka’s field organizer for the campaign, says Kreiss-Tomkins was instrumental in garnering support.

“He himself was out there at the Star Wars premiere collecting signatures and running around frantically helping the effort the last two weeks of December.”

There is a shift already happening on the state level in terms of digital voter registration. Division of Elections recently launched an online form, and since November, according to Lt. Gov. Mallot, some 600 people have signed up to vote. That’s an improvement, Kitchel says, but still not enough.

“There’s still that limiting factor that you’re really excited to vote and you go to register to vote online 25 days before the election and that’s still not soon enough even though it’s online,” she said. “By automatically registering people they don’t have to worry about that 30 day restriction and it just takes another step out of the way.”

Last year, more than half a million Alaskans received PFD checks. If this ballot initiative passes, the Division of Elections estimates that some 70,000 more people could simultaneously be registered to vote, Kitchel says.

“We’re trying to change voting from an opt in system to an opt out system,” she said.

Some opponents of the initiative are fearful of giving too much personal information to the government. Were it to pass, Kitchel says, the ballot initiative would not collect any more information than the PFD application. The initiative also includes an an opt out clause. Within a month of applying for the PFD, residents will receive a postcard in the mail that gives them the option of deregistering to vote.

In Sitka, canvassers collected more than 700 signatures in support of the ballot initiative.