(KCAW/Berett Wilber)

Sitka’s municipal elections may soon be getting a refresh. When the Sitka Assembly met on April 11, it approved on first reading, code changes that would establish early voting as a new option for local voters.

In 2020, Sitka set a record for early voter turnout in the municipal election. Over 1,300 people showed up to cast their ballots in the last weeks of September, rather than on election day. But if you want to get technical, it wasn’t actually “early” voting – it was “absentee-in-person.”

Up until now, the only way to vote early in Sitka’s municipal election each October is by voting absentee. But there’s a big difference. Absentee votes aren’t counted on election night— they’re counted on the Friday following the municipal election, regardless of whether a vote was cast in-person or through the mail.

Even with the downside of waiting several days for your vote to count, municipal clerk Sara Peterson says the absentee-in-person option in Sitka has maintained popularity since she decided in the fall of 2020 to move the early polls from City Hall for Harrigan Centennial Hall as a COVID mitigation measure. 

“The first year, in 2020, we had about 1300 people that voted in-person prior to election day. And then 2021 [and] 2022, it’s been about 700 to 800 people,” Peterson said. She added that while she felt COVID concerns were a big factor in the early voting surge, the ease of access at Harrigan Centennial Hall compared to City Hall made a big difference, too.

In 2022, 696 Sitkans voted early, in-person. That’s more than double the absentee-in-person votes from 2019. Under the new code, Sitkans will still have all of the absentee options – by mail, fax, in-person or using a representative – but they’ll have a new option too. If they choose to vote “early” in-person, they will see their votes counted on election night. 

The new code would also change the requirements for municipal election candidates. Currently city code suggests candidates must submit advocacy statements and biographical information to the city clerk’s office in order for their names to be listed on the ballot, but it’s not actually required. A language tweak would clarify that those documents are optional for candidates. 

But assembly member Crystal Duncan called for another language adjustment. The code sets a deadline for submitting those documents as 46 days before the election, if candidates want the information displayed on the city website. Duncan believed candidates who submit after the deadline shouldn’t be penalized. 

“We need to question, are the same candidates running? Are we reaching different pools who probably don’t have experience running an election? For us, it was easy. For me, I had help, and so people were pushing me to get that submitted,” Duncan said, recalling when she ran for her assembly seat in 2020.

“I don’t want to penalize someone and, almost in a way, exclude them, because I know how hard it is to run for these seats,” she added. “And until we see a body that’s reflective of the community, I think I’m going to stress that we need to take those considerations into account.”

She asked Peterson if late submissions had been a recurring problem for her office, and Peterson said it hadn’t been. So Duncan asked if they could remove the deadline altogether.  But several assembly members said they preferred to keep the deadline in, including Thor Christianson. 

“I know that Sara [Peterson] would make sure that they know their deadline is coming up. I can attest to that,” Christianson laughed. “So I don’t have a problem with a deadline. I mean, you need to have a certain amount of, I guess, basic rules. And if they can’t make that deadline…they’re not serious.”

Duncan made a motion to amend the code by striking the deadline language but it failed for a lack of a second. 

No other concerns were brought to the table about the code change. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz thanked Peterson for bringing early voting forward.

“I think making voting more accessible to more people is definitely a win. I understand how it can be difficult for some to make it down on a particular day,” Eisenbeisz said. “So your your work in modernizing our voting system to the standards that are in place elsewhere, is much appreciated.”

The ordinance passed on a 5-1 vote with assembly member Duncan opposed. It will come before the assembly for a final reading at the April 25 meeting.