Parties skeptical of ranked-choice voting intiative

  • Voters will decide an initiative this fall that would replace elections with a ranked choice system, but members of both parties who testified at a legislative hearing on June 30 are skeptical of the idea. (Photo/Becky Bohrer/AP)

This fall Alaskans will have the chance to overhaul the voting process for statewide elections with an initiative longtime Alaska officials in traditional two-party politics are dead-set against.

Leaders of the Vote Yes on 2 for Better Elections campaign insist their initiative would put an end to “dark money” in statewide elections by stiffening disclosure requirements for third-party political groups, encourage voter turnout in primary elections and ensure winning candidates are supported by a majority of voters, among other benefits.

Better Elections Campaign Manager Shea Siegert said during a June 30 House State Affairs hearing that current state campaign finance laws do not require third-party groups supporting a candidate or cause, commonly referred to as independent expenditure groups, to disclose the ultimate source of their funding. That leaves voters without enough information about who is attempting to influence Alaska’s elections, according to Siegert.

The initiative would require all independent expenditure groups to report the primary source of contributions of more than $2,000, but it would not prohibit them, as they are protected under the First Amendment, he noted.

“What we’re trying to do is shine a light on that true source,” Siegert said.

The Alaskans for Better Elections initiative will be proposed as Ballot Measure 2 on the November general election ballot.

It would also shift Alaska to an open primary system allowing voters of any political affiliation to vote in any primary election. Currently, Alaska law allows parties to choose how they conduct their primaries; Republican primaries are open to party members and non-partisans while the other parties have open elections.

Alaska had a blanket primary system — which allows voters to support candidates from different parties in different races — until 2000, when it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Open primaries generally permit all voters to pick which party they want to vote for but can limit voting to a single party.

The top four vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, would move on to the general election under the initiative.

According to Better Elections attorney Scott Kendall, other states that have gone to open primaries have seen turnout increase by 50 percent or more.

“The great thing about increased primary turnout is those primary voters almost universally become general election voters,” Kendall said.

Open primaries demand more compromise from candidates on big issues because the voter base is broader, he contends.

In a closed or semi-closed primary, “5 percent of the electorate can punish (candidates) for something the rest of the district wants,” Kendall said.

Finally, Alaska’s general election would shift to a ranked-choice system in which voters would rank the candidates 1-4. The candidate receiving the fewest first choice votes would be eliminated and the process would continue until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes in what amounts to an automatic runoff election.

Voters who favored the first candidate eliminated would have their vote moved to their second choice candidate, according to Kendall. Additionally, voters who wanted to vote for only one candidate could simply vote for just their first choice, he said.

Maine voters passed ranked-choice voting in 2016 — the first state to do so — and 99 percent of voters filled out their ballot correctly in the first ranked-choice election, according to Siegert.

He said the open primary and ranked choice systems mostly benefit the 62 percent of Alaskans who are not registered with one of the two major parties by adding more competition into state politics. He said nationally the major parties generally favor ranked-choice voting.

“In essence, it’s the return of free market voting to Alaska,” he said in an interview.

Kendall argued that ranked-choice voting discourages partisan legislative redistricting, or gerrymandering, that can arise when voters’ choices are limited by a two-party system.

“In our system where they will have four choices and can rank those choices it becomes a zero sum game to begin to push votes around the map,” he said.

Former Anchorage Democrat legislator and one-time Alaska Democratic Party executive director Kay Brown said she believes the election reforms run afoul of the Alaska Constitution in several fronts, including a requirement that a party’s governor and lieutenant governor candidates must run as a team in primary elections.

Brown said she respects the goal of bringing more openness and transparency to campaigns but called the 25-page initiative “complicated, confusing, poorly explained and legally flawed.”

“Alaska’s election system is not perfect but I do not believe it is broken,” Brown said.

“If anything is broken it’s the initiative process.”

Kendall noted that state attorneys and the Division of Elections challenged the initiative because they believed it violated the Alaska Constitution’s single-subject rule for initiative bills but they did not raise other perceived constitutional conflicts.

The Alaska Supreme Court upheld the initiative in a unanimous June 12 ruling.

Alaska Democratic Party spokeswoman Jeanne Devon declined to comment when asked about the party’s official position on the Better Elections initiative.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Glenn Clary concurred with Brown’s sentiments, but further argued in an interview that the initiative is part of an attempt by Better Elections’ Outside funders to control Alaska politics.

“What they’re wanting to do is socialize Alaska. They’re trying to eliminate identity to any party,” Clary said. “That’s socialism.”

Better Elections’ principal backer is Unite America, which bills itself as an independent group attempting to lessen partisanship in the country’s politics through advocating for ranked-choice voting and open primaries. Through the first quarter of the year Better Elections had raised more than $1.1 million for the initiative campaign, with $965,000 of that coming from Unite America, according to Alaska Public Office Commission filings.

Alaska is being used as a test lab because of its small population for the policies an elite few want to enact nationwide, according to Clary.

“If you believe in certain tenants and label yourself as such, then you’re not welcome in this state under Better Elections,” he said.

While parties would lose control of who can vote in their primaries, candidates would still be able to have their political affiliation shown on the ballot with the traditional “D” or “R” or “I” or something else, according to campaign leaders.

Clary said he would expect the Alaska Republican Party to seek a convention-style primary system if the initiative passes.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/01/2020 - 9:23am