Alaska voters will decide on a slate of democracy reforms in November. On the ballot is a proposal that aims to fix several of the electoral system’s nagging imperfections, including candidates who win without majority support, the hidden influence of anonymous donors, and perverse incentives that reward partisanship over constructive public policy. The proposal is a citizen’s initiative called Ballot Measure 2, or the Better Elections Initiative. More than 36,000 Alaskans across the state supported its addition to the 2020 ballot.
If voters say yes, Ballot Measure 2 would change Alaska’s election laws in the following three ways: 1) introducing open top-four primaries; 2) using ranked choice general election ballots in statewide and national races, and; 3) stripping campaign donors of their anonymity.
Open Top-Four Primaries
With open top-four primaries, all Alaska’s statewide races, excluding the presidential contest, will commence with a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top four winners then move on to a ranked-choice general election.
The tug of war over open versus closed primaries has a long history in Alaska. Alaska currently allows political parties to hold closed primaries, meaning they can choose from year to year which voters can participate based on registration. In 2020, Republicans iced out registered Democrats from their primaries, while Democrats allowed any registered voter to participate.
Alaska has the highest percentage of registered undeclared and nonpartisan voters of any state in the country. These voters, who make up about 58 percent of total registered voters in Alaska, may vote in either the Democratic and Republican primaries, but not both. They are in essence forced to choose a side in order to take part in the process, assuming they bother to participate at all.
Closed primaries allow partisanship to thrive. Although primaries are open to undeclareds and nonpartisans in Alaska and most other states, the bulk of voters in primaries tend to be heavily partisan. Primary voters also tend to knowingly support candidates whose views are more polarized than those widely held in their districts, according to a nationwide study by the Brookings Institution. For example, a district made up of mostly conservative-leaning voters might see a Democrat and a Republican candidate who is too extreme for their tastes on the general election ballot. Indeed, this scenario played out in Alaska’s 2020 legislative primaries, which punished several incumbent Republicans who had formed a bipartisan coalition with Democrats in the state House. Powerful state senators, including majority leader Cathy Giessel, also lost their primaries to more party-centric challengers for taking non-ideological positions on the state budget and working with Democrats on Alaska’s dire fiscal situation. A similar dynamic can play out in progressive-leaning districts. In such cases, most voters end up holding their noses and opting for what they feel is the least-bad choice, rather than a candidate they actually like.
Fears of single-party domination are overstated. In terms of registered voters, no party dominates any Alaska districts to the point where only candidates from that party would make it to the general. Almost certainly, at least one Democrat and one Republican will appear on the general ballot, and possibly another from a different wing of each party, or a third-party or independent candidate. And in the unlikely event that a voting district did happen to send four candidates from one party to the general, voters would still benefit: the selection of candidates will be wider than a two-party horserace, and the need for candidates to differentiate themselves from one another would provide choice along the spectrum, from moderates to those with beliefs outside the mainstream. In addition, a district so heavily dominated by a single party indicates the minority party faced long odds anyway. The likely scenario today in such districts is this: A closed primary dominated by the two political parties with two major candidates, an extremist or radical from the dominant party and a minority party candidate. Neither would represent the political majority in the district or the independent beliefs of most Alaskans voters.
No voting system is perfect, but unlike our current system, top-four primaries will ensure that voters are no longer shut out of certain primaries and reduce the ability for a sliver of heavily partisan voters to select the menu for their more moderate neighbors in the general election. Instead, candidates from all parties would contend on a single ballot, giving all voters plenty of options to choose from.
Using Ranked Choice Voting in General Elections
The state of Maine and more than a dozen cities in the lower 48 use ranked choice voting to give voters more voice and select majority winners.
If Ballot Measure 2 succeeds, voters would be able to rank candidates in general elections from most- to least-favorite starting in 2022. Ranked choice voting has been used in certain jurisdictions in the US and Europe, as well as in Australia Senate elections for over 100 years, and is gaining favor. The state of Maine and more than a dozen cities in the lower 48 use ranked choice voting to give voters more voice and select majority winners. Some Alaskans already have experience with ranked ballots: The Democratic Party used the system during its 2020 presidential primary. Massachusetts voters are also considering whether to use ranked choice voting in their elections.
So how does it work? Instead of being restricted to a binary choice for a single candidate, voters are free to vote based on their true feelings about multiple candidates. They rank their favorite as number one, their second favorite as number two, and so on. The candidate with more than half the first-place votes wins. If no candidate has more than 50 percent, the ballots for the candidate in last place are reallocated to voters’ second choices. The process continues until a candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold.
In considering whether to support Ballot Measure 2, voters might ask themselves what they do and do not like about the current election system in Alaska. No voting system is absolutely perfect, but some systems are better than others at upholding American norms of democracy. Based on our research, ranked choice voting is better than the more prevalent winner-takes-all system at strengthening democracy by moderating the divisive nature of two-party politics; rewarding candidates who win over a majority of voters; increasing voter choice; and improving turnout.
Ranked choice voting tends to have the following benefits:
Ranked choice voting incentivizes candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters beyond their bases.
Campaigns may become less polarized. Ranked choice voting incentivizes candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters beyond their bases. Unless the majority of voters in a district are heavily partisan, smart campaigning in a ranked choice system requires an appeal to moderate voters who will give the candidate a second or even third-place ranking, depending on the size of the field. To that end, candidates benefit from NOT alienating fans of their opponents. In 2014, a poll by Rutgers-Eagleton showed residents in cities that used ranked choice voting believed their candidates behaved more civilly than candidates in cities using conventional voting methods.
The playing field becomes more level for candidates from underrepresented groups. A study by the democracy advocacy group Represent Women found that typical winner-take-all elections disadvantage women, particularly women of color. Their research shows that incumbent advantage, high campaign costs, and negative campaigns, while tough on all candidates, disproportionately hurts females running for office. On the other hand, the use of ranked choice voting correlates with representation that more closely matches the demographics of America’s increasingly diverse voter population.
No candidate can win with less than half the vote. Since 2014, eight statewide elections in Alaska resulted in candidates winning with support from less than half of voters. That included the 2014 governor’s and U.S. Senate races, the 2016 U.S. Senate race, and a handful of state House races. Ranked choice voting allows for an “instant runoff” between the top candidates, until one receives more than half the votes. This means an extremist can’t slide into office thanks to vote-splitting between two similar candidates and the winner is someone that more than half of voters can get behind.
Ranked choice voting correlates with representation that more closely matches the demographics of America’s increasingly diverse voter population.
Voters can choose less-popular candidates without throwing away their vote. Third-party and other candidates can run in ranked choice elections without worrying about diverting votes from more mainstream candidates. Voters will have less cause to worry about “wasting” their votes by voting for these candidates. If less popular candidates are eliminated, the votes will then be reallocated. Even if they don’t win, including independent and third-party candidates in the race can broaden the debate and bring attention to issues that would otherwise be ignored. And because voters can choose them without fearing the results, Alaskans will be able to see how much support independents and third-parties really have.
Candidates from parties outside the mainstream can enter races more easily. In Alaska, the Republican and Democrat parties play highly influential roles in determining who gets on the ballot in the primary and, by extension, the general elections. Ballot Measure 2 removes the gatekeeping power of political parties and allows anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to enter a primary. The top four winners would advance to the general election.
Voter turnout improves. A study of elections in 26 cities linked ranked choice voting to a 10 percent increase in turnout compared to regular elections. Voters who have more confidence that their preferences matter are generally more motivated to participate in an election. Interestingly, ranked choice voting tends to be more effective in bringing voters to the polls than typical get-out-the-vote efforts.
Voters transition easily to the new system. Ranked choice voting is easy to understand and voters have little trouble switching over. As an example, imagine a contest in which Alaskans rank their favorite seafood. A voter gives her first place vote to King Crab, second to Salmon, and third to Halibut. In the initial vote tally, no seafood gets more than half the votes. In addition, King Crab comes in third and is therefore eliminated. But the voter still has a say when it comes to the remaining contenders. Because she ranked Salmon second, it gets her vote. Salmon eventually attracts enough votes to go over 50 percent and wins the contest.
What the measure would do
Ballot Measure 2 changes Alaska statute to accommodate ranked choice elections. Key updates include addressing how election workers should handle ballots from voters who deviate from the standard method of ranked choice voting. For instance, if a voter gives two candidates the same ranking, the ballot is considered inactive once the duplicate rankings are encountered. (If a voter ranks a candidate first and the next two candidates second, the first place vote still counts, unless that candidate is eliminated.) Or, if a voter skips a ranking, their next ranking will still count, but two skipped rankings mean the ballot is inactive.
Lessons from Maine
If the measure passes, Alaska could become the second state after Maine to adopt ranked choice voting. (Or tie for second, as it’s also on the ballot in Massachusetts.) Maine voters opted for ranked choice voting in 2016 for statewide primary and congressional general elections and held its first ranked choice election in 2018. Despite numerous political and legal challenges, voters in Maine defended ranked choice voting. When the Legislature attempted to repeal the system, it was blocked by a “people’s veto,” a petition signed by more than 80,000 Maine residents. Most of Maine’s electorate has adjusted to the new system. A 2018 survey by the Maine chapter of the League of Women Voters found that 90 percent of Maine voters considered ranked choice voting a positive experience.
Exposing Sources of Dark Money
Roughly $1 billion in anonymous political contributions, known as “dark money” have shaped U.S. political campaigns from the local to federal level since 2010. Protections for these contributors mean voters, news organizations, and even election watchdog groups have no way to surface the identities of big donors.
Conservatives, led by the Koch brothers and enabled by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, pioneered the widespread practice of secret giving with impunity, but the left has since caught up. Both parties now draw upon enormous reserves from hidden donors who send uncapped amounts of campaign cash to groups such as political nonprofits, unions, and trade associations. None of these groups are required to disclose the source of their donations. They in turn send their donations to Super PACS (political action committees), which can legally spend unlimited sums on political campaigns.
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Wealthy voters are behind the bulk of dark money donations. Their outsized influence on elections gives them yet another advantage over millions of their fellow citizens. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that in 2018, 1 percent of donors gave 96 percent of the $852 million wielded by Super PACs. Voters with household incomes that are far lower cannot hope to have the same say in elections and candidate platforms that the ultra-rich can purchase.
Ballot Measure 2 would unmask higher-dollar donors influencing statewide political campaigns. While the measure won’t stop or cap donations, it will help Alaskans identify the people doling out large sources of campaign cash. Knowing exactly who is financing a particular political ad or filling the coffers of a candidate will help voters be more discerning about whom and what to support.
Ballot Measure 2 adds transparency to dark money donations in the following ways:
Donors can no longer remain anonymous. Donors must report key identifying information if they spend more than $2,000 in “independent expenditures” to influence an Alaska political campaign. Independent expenditures fund communications advocating for or against a candidate without coordinating with the candidate or political parties. Political groups and individuals face fines for misreporting or failing to disclose the true source of a contribution. The Alaska Public Offices Commission would be responsible for providing the public access to donor information on its website.
Transparency must extend to ads and other media materials. Ads, websites, and other communications to voters must include “easily discernible” statements showing the name, city, state of residence or main place of business of the contributors who paid for it. Outside-funded entities must state in all communications about the issue or candidate that a majority of contributions come from outside Alaska.
Reporting must be timely. Reporting needs to happen within 24 hours of the contribution being received. Allowing reports to be withheld for too long means voters may not find out about the source of major donations until well after an election. There is a civil penalty of up to $1,000 a day for any entity that fails to meet the 24-hour reporting deadline, as determined by APOC.
Speaking of casting a light on dark money, a campaign to support Ballot Measure 2, called Alaskans for Better Elections, has received about $3 million in financial support. Nearly all the money has come from three groups: The Action Now Initiative (founded by philanthropists Laura and John Arnold); RepresentUS (founded by Josh Silver and Joshua Graham Lynn), and UniteAmerica (founded by Charlie Wheelen). An opposing group, Defend Alaska Elections, had significantly fewer resources as of mid-September, their top donors are the Republican State Leadership Committee; the Club for Growth, and the Alaska Republican Party.
How to decide?
Voters who typically use partisan signaling to choose their stance on issues will have a harder time doing so on Ballot Measure 2. The camps supporting and opposing the initiative are unusually bipartisan. Former US Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, teamed up with former Governor Sean Parnell, a Republican to blast the measure in the Wall Street Journal. Former heads of the Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out against the measure. Begich’s son, Jacob, and brother, state Senator Tom Begich, support it. So does former state Senator Lesil McGuire, a Republican.
There is no easy partisan shortcut for deciding how to vote on Ballot Measure 2. In that sense, the initiative reflects the independent spirit of Alaska voters. The decision will require some self-reflection about how you believe a democracy should function. We suggest making a list of the election norms you believe are essential to a strong democracy. It might include making elections accessible to as many voters as possible, ensuring the process is easy for voters to understand, and ensuring the demographics of elected officials reflect those of the electorate. And then, ask yourself: Is the current system doing a good job of upholding your democratic values? Or, do you think Ballot Measure 2 could do better?
Sightline Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.