In a trailblazing win for election reform, Alaska voters passed an initiative that introduces ranked choice voting to all general elections, starting in 2022. The measure also institutes open top-four primaries and brings more transparency to the identities of donors funding political campaigns.
The success of Ballot Measure 2, also called the “Better Elections Initiative,” puts Alaska in position to become a national model for fixing polarized politics by incentivizing candidates to draw votes from a broader segment of the political spectrum. And it clears the way for Alaskans to support Independents and smaller political parties in general elections without fear of “wasting” their votes.
In a trailblazing win for election reform, Alaska voters passed an initiative that introduces ranked choice voting to all general elections, starting in 2022.
Passage was never a given. After all, reform is a hard sell. And prominent members of both parties opposed the measure, saying voters would be confused and turnout would suffer. But other key Democrats and Republicans also came out in favor. With representatives of the two major parties staking out positions in both the Yes and No camps, voters could not rely on the usual partisan cues in choosing which bubble to fill.
Ballot Measure 2’s success was based on Alaskans’ fundamental dissatisfaction with the way the current election system serves their interests. Voter education was critical in showing them a credible way to alleviate issues like extreme partisanship and highly negative campaign tactics. Alaskans for Better Elections, the well-funded campaign to advance the measure, played a critical role in effectively highlighting its merits.
The campaign attracted a broad mix of support from respected Alaskans all over the state, including former state senators Albert Kookesh, a Democrat, and Lesil McGuire, a Republican. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters independently vetted and ultimately supported the measure. The right-leaning editorial board of the Anchorage Daily News did the same. And so did indie rock band Portugal. The Man, whose members hail from Wasilla.
Ballot Measure 2 passed on Tuesday, 50.5 to 49.5 percent. The margin could change slightly as the Division of Elections counts remaining ballots.
Open Top-Four Primaries
For two decades, Alaskans have voted in either the Democratic and Republican primaries, but not both. This “closed primary” process tends to attract highly partisan voters. In some cases they have sent candidates into the general election whose politics were more extreme than the views of most Alaskans.
Top-four primaries will reduce the ability of a sliver of the electorate to select the menu for their more moderate neighbors in the general election. With the passage of Ballot Measure 2, there will no longer be separate primaries in statewide races for governor, Congress, and state legislature. Instead, Alaskans will vote in a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top four winners then move on to a ranked-choice general election. The presidential primary format will not change.
The tug of war over open versus closed primaries has a long history in Alaska. In the current closed system, political parties can choose each election season which voters can participate in their primaries, based on party affiliation. In 2020, Republicans, with 140,000 registered voters, iced out Democrats, while Democrats, with 77,000 registered voters allowed all voters to participate. The 371,000 Alaskans who were undeclared, nonpartisan, or registered with smaller parties had to choose between the two major parties in order to participate. They won’t anymore. With all voters involved in a single primary, candidates with the broadest appeal will move on to the general.
Ranked Choice Voting
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Statewide general elections for governor, state legislature, the White House, and Congress will take place using ranked choice voting. Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, in order from most- to least-favorite. If a candidate earns a majority of first-place votes, they win. If no candidate has more than 50 percent, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their ballots are reallocated to voters’ second choices. The process continues until a candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold. For some voters, ranking candidates can be confusing, but research shows voters adapt.
In addition to ensuring that no candidate can win with less than half the vote, research suggests that ranked choice voting incentivizes politicians to run less polarizing campaigns and the playing field becomes more level for women and people of color. Voters can also choose less-popular candidates without fear of throwing away their vote.
Maine is the only other state to use ranked choice voting statewide, although not for the governor’s or state legislative races. Local governments in multiple states, including Utah, Florida, Tennessee, Oregon, California, and Michigan also use ranked choice voting. A ranked choice voting initiative on the Massachusetts ballot in 2020 failed, 55 to 45 percent.
Right now, much of the money flowing to Alaska’s races cannot be traced to their original donors. Ballot Measure 2 requires political campaigns for state-level races to reveal their identities. While not all campaigns will be required to unmask their political contributors, Alaskans will know more than they know now about who’s peddling influence in state races.
The Fight Isn’t Finished
Ballot Measure 2 faced headwinds early on, when the State of Alaska sought to halt the signature-gathering process required for the initiative’s inclusion on the 2020 ballot. The state argued that the measure violated the section of the state’s constitution that limits ballot measures to a single subject. A Superior Court judge ruled that the measure was indeed within the bounds of a single subject—election reform. The state Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling in June 2020.
If Maine is any indicator, Alaska can expect additional lawsuits attempting to derail reform. (A lawyer who worked on the initiative said he expects the Republican and possibly Democratic parties to file suit.) But Mainers have shown that it’s possible to fend off post-passage political and legal challenges. When the Legislature attempted to repeal ranked choice voting, it was blocked by a “people’s veto,” a petition signed by more than 80,000 Maine residents. And in September, the Maine Supreme Court considered the issue, ultimately ruling that the presidential election could proceed using ranked choice voting.
Opponents may want to consider whether challenges in any form are worthwhile. After all the hoopla, Maine had no need to implement ranked choice voting in either its US Senate or presidential races. US Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, fought off a competitive bid by the Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, squeaking by with 51 percent of the vote. President-elect Joe Biden won three of Maine’s four electoral votes, with President Trump netting the fourth. Alaska’s election reforms may not change voters’ political views, but they could win hearts and minds by giving voters more voice and more choice in elections, while ensuring candidates must seek broad support in order to take office.