This week, legislators and staff from across Alaska returned to Juneau for the second session of the 33rd Alaska State Legislature.
Every year, we see legislation that implicates a wide array of Alaskans’ civil rights and liberties. We work to build support and advance legislation that expands and upholds these constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. We also advocate against legislation that harms Alaskans and erodes their rights. Here’s what we are watching for this session.
This is a big election year in Alaska, with the presidential race, U.S. House seat, state legislative seats, and potential ballot measures up for a vote. It will also be the second cycle in which Alaska uses Ranked Choice Voting.
During the last several sessions, the legislature has worked on and nearly passed an election reform package. The most recent of these is SB 138, introduced late in the 2023 session by Sen. Scott Kawasaki, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill includes elements that were included in previous legislation, including establishing a ballot curing system, allowing voters to opt into absentee voting as their standard method (rather than request an absentee ballot for each election), and removing the witness signature requirement from absentee ballots.
This bill would address observed ways that Alaskans are impeded from exercising their right to vote. During the 2022 all-mail special election primary, we saw thousands of ballots rejected because of easily fixable and benign errors, like a voter identifier not matching the voter record, lack of a voter identifier, or because the voter did not sign the ballot. Rejection rates were higher in rural precincts with a higher percentage of Alaska Native voters. And in a 2020 lawsuit to strike down the witness signature requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state couldn’t identify one instance in which it helped detect fraud. It simply doesn’t serve a purpose.
SB 138 made it through the Finance Committee late last session before time ran out for the Senate to vote on it. We expect the effort to pass an elections bill to resume in 2024. It’s unclear whether any changes would be possible for the Division of Elections to implement ahead of statewide elections, especially with the primary in August. But our main concern is making sure that the bill that passes is sound policy.
What would be especially valuable ahead of this year’s elections is legislative oversight into other longstanding issues that impact elections, including election worker recruitment and retention, Postal Service failures, and the state’s language assistance program.
The ACLU of Alaska, with Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Perkins Coie, took the State of Alaska to court in 2022 after it refused to address ballot curing issues that disenfranchised more than 5,000 voters in the June special election. This lawsuit is ongoing. Read more about Arctic Village Council, et al. V. State of Alaska, Department of Elections here.
Criminal Legal Reform
Alaska’s criminal legal system, particularly the Department of Corrections (DOC), has repeatedly violated the rights and dignity of incarcerated people. Oversight, accountability, and reform is long overdue for DOC and its partner agencies – here are our top priorities in 2024.
- Oversight for prison deaths and inadequate access to counsel. In 2022, a record 22 people in DOC custody died, and in 2023 we continued to see people die preventable deaths while incarcerated. Oversight is needed to bring transparency to these deaths, as well as why DOC fails to adequately report and count the deaths that stemmed from medical emergencies. Last August, two wrongful death lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families of James Rider, who died in DOC custody in 2022, and Mark Cook Jr., who died in April 2023. In October, the Alaska Federation of Natives adopted a resolution calling for an independent federal investigation into the disproportionate prison deaths of Alaska Native people in custody While these steps bring us closer to transparency and accountability, the legislature must exercise its oversight authority.
The legislature should also use this session to press DOC for changes in how it guarantees prisoners’ rights to counsel, courts, and legal materials. Over the last year, we have collected information on DOC’s policies and practices that restrict legal mail, attorney-client visits and calls, access to courts and counsel during detox and in solitary confinement, and access to law libraries. Interfering with these rights and lawyers’ ability to do their jobs slows the judicial process, and as a result, everyone - incarcerated people, victims, and families - suffers.
- Parole. Parole is an alternative to incarceration that provides community safety and accountability. The result of parole is lower costs to taxpayers, lower recidivism rates, healthier families, and safer communities. However, Alaska’s parole system is in need of reform.
Recent trends have demonstrated that many parole applicants are not getting a fair shake. Since 2020, the Parole Board in Alaska has released 79% fewer people and is holding 75% fewer hearings than before the pandemic. The high rate of denials contributes to prison overcrowding and the high rate of deaths in Alaska's prisons. Just a quarter of people who applied for discretionary parole – one of two primary types of parole - in 2022 were granted it. We see even smaller rates for Alaska Native and Black people, who are overly represented in the prison population. Additionally, while Alaska’s prison population grows older, the state does not take advantage of mechanisms that would allow sick and aging prisoners to be paroled.
While the parole board has immense authority to determine the futures of incarcerated people, it operates without transparency and has broad authority to keep people incarcerated – including those who have served time and demonstrated their fitness to return to their families and communities. In short, the parole board is undercutting the premise that Alaska’s criminal justice system is based on rehabilitation alongside punishment.
This is why we are supportive of SB 176, which would change the composition of the parole board to make sure it includes people who can expertly assess a person’s rehabilitation and the likelihood they will not be a threat to the public if released. Currently, most parole board members come from law enforcement and Department of Corrections backgrounds. SB 176 would require the board to include a more diverse spectrum of people, including a crime victim, a psychologist, an addiction recovery support professional, a person who went through the parole system, and a member of a federally recognized Alaska tribe.
Last year, we saw more attempts in the Alaska legislature to bring the nationwide wave of anti-LGBTQIA2S+ legislation to the state. HB 105 was the primary piece of legislation, a so-called “parental rights” bill that was introduced by the governor last March. It generated fierce opposition because of what the introduced version would plainly do – require parental opt-in for any content involving “gender identity,” require parental permission to use a student’s preferred pronouns or name and require students to use the bathroom aligning with their biological sex. The bill received hours of testimony, with most testifiers in opposition, and was significantly modified in the process before being moved out of the House Education Committee.
This year, the House Judiciary Committee holds the bill and may receive hearings. The bill will face an uphill-to-impossible path in the Senate on its own, but we will be vigilant for any attempts to sneak anti-LGBTQIAS+ policy into other legislation.
With that said, we have seen that even when there is no legislative path to pass anti-transgender measures, policymakers will look for alternative routes. The Alaska Department of Early Education and Development’s decision to ban trans girls from school sports in 2023 came after similar legislation failed to gain traction in Juneau. We will be vigilant and watch for both administrative and legislative action for statewide advancement of the agenda to erase transgender people from public life — in schools, in healthcare settings, and in libraries.
As demonstrated by our November lawsuit with the Northern Justice Project against the Mat-Su Borough School District for its unconstitutional book ban, we will be prepared to fight any bills that violate the rights of transgender and queer Alaskans – whether in the committee room or the courts.
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