October 13, 2011 |

Opinion

It’s time to do away with designated seats on the Haines Borough Assembly. They limit our choices as voters, and can result in the election of candidates who have less than majority suppport.

Here’s the deal: Six candidates were seeking election to the assembly this year, but voters couldn’t choose between them all because ballots limited their choices to three, separate "races."

The "races," however, were an abstraction because, since consolidation in 2002, all assembly seats are identical. There’s no difference between seats "A," "B," "C," "D," "E" and "F" on the assembly. All assembly seats are at-large, meaning candidates are elected by all the voters in the borough and each seat represents voters boroughwide.

Here’s the problem, using a hypothetical example from the recent election: Say you’re a voter who thought the best candidates for assembly were Jerry Lapp, Debra Schnabel, and Jerry Erny.

The ballot – using our current system of designated seats – prevented you from voting for both Erny and Schnabel, who were cast as opponents for seat "C." Instead, you had to choose one or the other, then cast a ballot either for Karen Hess or Norm Smith, neither of whom you preferred.

Under our system, we don’t get the candidates who have the most support of voters. We get only the candidates who had more voter support than their opponent or opponents for a given "seat."

That’s a limited choice. It’s also a bad system that leaves elections open to all kinds of mischief, as candidates jockey for seats depending on who has filed or might file for a given seat. Finally, the current system tends to minimize the number of total candidates for office, as candidates who are the third ones to file for a seat are chastised for "splitting the vote."

There’s a better system already in place in towns all over Alaska. Again using our most recent election as an example, here’s how it would work: The names of all six candidates would be listed on the ballot. You, as a voter, would get to cast ballots for any three of them. The candidates with the three highest vote tallies would be elected.

Under this system, voters get exactly the leaders they want. Also, voters are more likely to judge candidates on their individual merits versus how they stack up against their respective opponent or opponents. No more "lesser of two evils" on the Haines Borough Assembly.

Designated seats are a vestige of the old borough government, when assembly seats were assigned to different geographic districts of the borough. That’s no longer the case, so it’s time to retire them.

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Another needed change is to shorten the election season. It was stretched this year from about 10 weeks to 16, in reaction to election challenges that occurred in 2009 and 2010 due to ambiguous wording in borough election law.

Wording was revised this year to remove ambiguities but the assembly still made changes that include a candidate filing deadline three weeks earlier than the previous one, and a schedule for seating a new assembly that runs later in the year.

In the early season, that means another month of campaigning for candidates. In the late season, it means incumbents whom voters rejected at the polls will be in power for two assembly meetings after the election. This year, for example, the first scheduled assembly meeting with new members and a new Mayor won’t happen until Nov. 15.

The new gap between elections and seating of the new government seems to leave too much waiting time for elected leaders to be installed and too much decision-making time by leaders who are on their way out the door.

Also, with all the other things we need to do in this town, is it necessary that our annual election season go on for four months, or one third of a year?

-- Tom Morphet