Only about a quarter of Ketchikan’s registered voters cast ballots in the October 1 municipal election. That’s more than usual, but there’s still room for improvement.

 Turnout for this year’s election was 26 percent. That might not sound great, but it’s relatively high for a local election, according to Ketchikan City Clerk Kim Stanker.

“Actually, this is probably one of the best turnouts we’ve had,” Stanker said.

Voter turnout is usually expressed as a percentage. It’s calculated by dividing the number of votes by the number of registered voters. On a percentage basis, turnout this year was the highest since 2016, when 27 percent of voters went to the polls.

But voter rolls have grown recently — in part thanks to a policy change on the state level, says Ketchikan Gateway Borough Clerk Kacie Paxton.

“Last year was the first year that the state of Alaska offered online voter registration in connection with the filing of a permanent fund dividend application,” Paxton said.

Paxton says voter registration jumped by about 10 percent between 2017 and 2018. If you just consider just the number of people who went to vote — not the percentage — more people voted in 2019 than in any local election since 2006.

Both clerks say turnout is generally higher when propositions are on the ballot. This year, the city had three ballot questions, and the borough had one. Stanker says that might be due in part to advertising by parties interested in passing those propositions.

“I know KPU did a lot of advertising for the two bond propositions, and make people aware more that the election is happening,” Stanker said.

Paxton says the borough has a few initiatives to encourage people to turn out and vote. Every household gets a packet with a sample ballot and a quick explanation of what’s on the ballot. The borough also provides free bus rides to the polls on Election Day and offers absentee voting. There’s also outreach on social media.

But one idea has been catching on in some western states: vote-by-mail. That’s a system where every registered voter gets a ballot mailed to them. Voters fill out the ballot and either drop it in the mailbox or walk it in to a drop box. Paxton serves on a statewide voting task force.

“One of the things that task force is looking at is statewide by-mail balloting,” Paxton said.

Colorado and Oregon use vote-by-mail statewide. Anchorage started using the system in its municipal elections last year, and Paxton says that got a lot more voters to the polls.

“Anchorage turnout the first year they did by-mail, they jumped to a 38 percent voter turnout,” Paxton said.

Bob Stein is a political science professor at Rice University. He’s done a lot of work on vote-by-mail.

“I did several studies for the Pew Charitable Trusts on turnout effects of vote-by-mail, ballot completion, and a big issue that’s not gotten a lot of attention are the costs,” Stein said.

Stein says his studies show mail-in balloting increases turnout. And,

“Turnout effects seem to be greater, not surprisingly, in lower-turnout elections, what we might call lower-intensity: midterms, state and local races,” Stein said.

Stein says voters are more likely to vote in every race on the ballot, since they can take the time to research each individual candidate and ballot question.

He also says vote-by-mail can also save money.

“You don’t have polling locations you have to rent, there are not a lot of expensive machines you have to buy — and replace — and of course there aren’t poll workers, however meagerly they’re paid, do cost you money,” Stein said.

But here in Ketchikan, Borough Clerk Paxton says vote-by-mail could actually be more expensive.

“There is a substantial cost attributed to it, and at this point, from the research that I’ve done, it would be more expensive to do a borough-wide by-mail election than an in-person election,” Paxton said.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that Anchorage’s election costs doubled in 2018 with the switch to vote-by-mail. Much of that money went to one-time purchases, like specialized machinery that sorts mail-in ballots.

Either way, though, Paxton says residents probably won’t be voting by mail in Ketchikan — at least not for a while.

“If our assembly, if our city council want to go to by-mail, it would probably be a couple-year process,” Paxton said.

Paxton says she’s watching state trends, though. So if the system sees more success, Ketchikan could move to a vote-by-mail system.

For now, though, Ketchikan’s election officials are sticking with the tried-and-true in-person approach.