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.
Two observations about ranked-choice voting based on 2020 election results:
1) Ranked choice is not biased towards either party, and can sometimes benefit Republicans. For instance, Biden’s margins in both Georgia and Arizona were much less than the libertarian party’s vote share, which suggests that Trump might have actually won both states, had ranked-choice voting been used. At a minimum, ranked-choice voting would have almost certainly re-elected David Perdue, in Georgia, without the risk of a runoff (since he was so close to 50% to begin with).
This is important because, if ranked-choice is to gain momentum, it must be supported on both the left and the right. So far, most of the institutions that have advocated election reform (including Sightline) have been left-leaning, but in order for it to happen in Republican-leaning states, it needs support on the right as well. And, what better way for conservatives to drum up support for it than to argue that it would have helped Donald Trump (even though Biden would have most likely still won the election, it could have been much closer).
2) The reported margins between the top-two candidates can be misleading. For example, in Maine Susan Collins cleared 50%, causing the 2nd choice votes from Lisa Savage to go uncounted. Had they been counted, they would have probably broken for Sara Gideon, resulting in a final margin that looks a lot closer than the media has been reporting.
While it doesn’t change who wins, it would be nice if states would go ahead and continue re-allocating votes of lower-tier candidates, even after a candidate clears 50%, just to get a truer picture of what the margin is between the top two. Similar to how, in a traditional election, states don’t simply stop counting, once the leading candidate’s margin of victory exceeds the number of ballots remaining. (Ideally, the counting would be automated enough that reporting this extra data would not be a burden on taxpayers).
Thanks, Jeannette! As a former long-time Alaskan, I appreciate your in-depth article. Since TAPS changed the character of the state in the 70s (IMO), I’d about given up on the Alaska electorate (see D Young). This gives me hope. Fingers crossed that the initiative holds.
I haven’t asked any of my family members who live in AK (Wasilla…) what their thoughts are about the initiative. We’ve avoided talking politics the past few years.
RCV is a very effective tool at ending costly, vitriolic, ill-attended runoffs, which is why the folks in San Francisco created it. I was unaware, however, that Alaska had been plagued with such problems, and your article seems to indicate that expensive, vitriolic, ill-attended runoffs are not your problem. If not, and even if they are, RCV may not help you achieve the goals you are looking for.
For example, “it clears the way for Alaskans to support Independents and smaller political parties in general elections without fear of “wasting” their votes.” Although voters can feel good about ranking independents and small parties on their ballot, RCV ensures they are no more electable than under plurality. RCV using the same mechanic of one-voter-one-candidate, which is why independents can’t be elected today. If you look at the results of the San Francisco elections since 2004 (the first election where RCV was used) compared to those before, you will see that there has been no change in election results–every seat is won by a Democrat with a Republican coming in second.
This doesn’t mean RCV favors one of the two major parties over the other, it doesn’t. But it does favor those parties over all others and ensures a two-party lock on government.
So if you are a die-hard Republican or Democrat, enacting RCV should be one of your main goals as it will ensure we keep the status quo of gridlock and polarizations, but with less cost and yelling.
Otherwise, you may want to look at score voting. Any kind of election system (to include approval voting, STAR voting, or just simple score voting) where every voter scores every candidate and the high score wins (no runoffs!) will ensure candidates representing the center-majority are elected. The system favors the center-majority the same way RCV and plurality favor the two parties.
Glad, however, that Alaska is showing that it IS a leader in working toward voting reform–I just hope it isn’t cosmetic reform that doesn’t reward the citizens of the state and all of those who worked so hard to create meaningful change.
While I do not live in Alaska, I want to say that even though I am open to RCV, I am very much in against non-partisan top four primaries. I would even be opposed to non-partisan top two primaries also. If I were a resident of Alaska, I would gone on to have that law reversed by going on a petition drive or some type of way to get a referendum on the ballot to have your state’s non-partisan top four primary repealed and bring back either the closed primary or semi-closed primary system. Non-partisan top two or top four primaries impeaches a voters “option” to enroll in a party, effectively forcing all voters to be unaligned with any party which in turn takes away examples free speech. That’s not right/fair. I hope the non-partisan top four primary in Alaska gets repealed as soon as possible. really. Seriously.