In Alaska’s 2022 primary election, turnout in every candidate race rose to the highest rate in a decade. Larger shares of Alaska voters cast ballots in the races for governor, Congress, and the state legislature than in any of the previous five elections. Participation peaked across the political spectrum. Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third-party voters all cast ballots at higher rates in 2022 than the previous decade’s average.1To calculate voter turnout in each election, Sightline divided the number of votes cast for each office by the state’s (or district, for state legislative races) citizen voting age population. This approach differs from that of the state of Alaska’s, which calculates turnout based on the number of registered voters. Sightline opted to use the number of citizens of voting age as the denominator because it provides for a more consistent comparison across jurisdictions and years, and it controls for a big jump in registered voter numbers in 2018, when Alaska implemented automatic voter registration. For the quantitative analysis in this article, Sightline relied on data from the Alaska Division of Elections and the US Census Bureau. Official election results are available on the Division of Elections website in both machine-readable (text file) and human-readable (PDF) formats, as are official descriptions of the state’s legislative districts. To process this many records, Sightline parsed the text file data using the statistical programming language R and spot-checked our work against the PDF reports. Sightline collected Census data using the tidycensus R package, specifically from the American Community Survey 5-year estimates.
 

The increase coincided with the debut of nonpartisan open primaries, where all candidates appeared on a single ballot available to all voters, regardless of party. Alaska appears to have followed a pattern seen in other states, where opening the primaries came with a turnout boost of at least a few percentage points. Other factors that may have boosted turnout include an unusually large number of campaigns unfolding across the state, voter interest in high-profile candidates, competitive races, and exposure to election news coverage.  

Voter participation is a temperature check on American democracy. High turnout signals that citizens are engaged in public life and democracy is thriving, while low turnout indicates the opposite. Yet low voter turnout in primary elections is the default across the country. In 2022, no state exceeded 50 percent primary election turnout. And only four states have reached 35 percent turnout at least once in the past four nonpresidential primary elections, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. In that context, Alaska’s 37 percent turnout among eligible voters was commendable and ranked as the third-highest voter participation rate of all states in 2022.  

Still, Alaska has ample room to improve voter turnout across the political spectrum and in the selection of presidential candidates, a process controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Continued low turnout in Alaska’s 2024 presidential primaries, where the reforms don’t apply, provides a strong contrast to the rest of the state’s primary races.   

Primary election turnout in Alaska increased in 2022 for every contest and every party 

The 2022 midterm primary elections in Alaska grabbed voters’ attention. Turnout for all statewide races (governor, US Senate, and US House) exceeded 35 percent. Voter participation for the legislative races rose above 30 percent for the first time in the past decade. 

A vacant seat in the US House

The US House race unexpectedly took the spotlight following the death in March 2022 of US Representative Don Young, who had represented Alaska in Congress for 49 years. Young’s death triggered a special primary in June to decide who would serve out the remainder of his term. The regular primary followed, as scheduled, in August. Both used the new nonpartisan open primary format.  

Turnout in the regular primary for the US House race hit 36 percent, a record high for the decade. The race attracted a huge field of 22 contenders. All voters, regardless of political party registration, were free to choose any one of those candidates. The leading candidates also created significant buzz and media attention through their charisma, cross-partisan platforms, and name recognition. The top four vote-getters (Mary Peltola, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, and Tara Sweeney) moved on to the ranked choice general election, which Peltola won.  

An incumbent defends her seat in the US Senate 

The US Senate primary came down to moderate versus conservative Republican politics. A seasoned incumbent, Senator Lisa Murkowski, faced 18 challengers. Murkowski had survived a 2010 Republican primary ouster to win a write-in campaign in the general election with the help of Democrats. She needed them again to push her over the line. Her positions in Congress, a mix of support for abortion rights and opposition to President Donald Trump, while also protecting Alaska’s oil and mining production and gun ownership reflected that. Murkowski’s closest challenger, Kelly Tshibaka ran on less federal spending and involvement in Alaska and reducing abortion access. In 2024, Tshibaka, a Harvard Law School graduate and evangelical pastor, became Alaska chair of Trump’s presidential campaign.  

Turnout in the US Senate race hit 35.6 percent, 0.6 points higher than turnout in 2014.2Sightline’s analysis went back to 2012, an off-year for the US Senate race.
Murkowski won 45 percent of the primary vote and Tshibaka won 39 percent. They advanced to the general election with two minor candidates, Democrat Pat Chesbro and Republican Buzz Kelley. High turnout by a cross-section of Alaska voters likely helped Murkowski. About 5 percent of primary voters split their tickets, selecting Murkowski as the only Republican on their ballots and then choosing Democrats for the remaining four races. Murkowski would have lost under the previous primary system, where the parties ran lower-turnout races dominated by more extreme base voters. Instead, the nonpartisan open primary allowed Murkowski voters across the political spectrum to demonstrate their desire to see her on the ballot in the ranked choice general election, which she went on to win. 

Two governors, a legislator, and a mayor in the gubernatorial race 

Primary election turnout in the governor’s race peaked for the decade in 2022, at 35 percent.3Sightline’s analysis went back to 2012, an off-year for the races for governor and lieutenant governor.
Until 2022, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ran in separate primary races. In 2022, they ran on a combined ticket in both the primary and the general elections. 

The primary election for governor and lieutenant governor featured 10 pairings. Governor Mike Dunleavy, the incumbent, and Charlie Pierce, both conservative Republicans, former governor Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, and former state representative Les Gara, a Democrat. Notably, these four candidates all teamed with women as running mates.  

The candidates’ differing policies on the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), the annual state royalty check issued to every Alaska resident, may have animated voters. PFD payouts were non-controversial until oil prices began dropping in the mid-2010s and have since become the defining policy issue in Juneau. However, the PFD was also a hot-button issue during the 2018 gubernatorial election, when turnout was just 21 percent. Dunleavy ultimately retained his seat, in large part because of his vociferous prioritization of the PFD over other budget items.  

Turnout boost holds for legislative races 

Until 2022, the average turnout for both the state House and state Senate races never exceeded 30 percent. But in 2022, voter participation in Alaska legislative races hit 31 percent for the House and 32 percent for the Senate.

Perhaps an increase in competitive races drew voters in. Of the 59 nonpartisan open primary races for Alaska legislature in 2022, 88 percent were competitive, meaning they gave voters a choice between multiple candidates on the ballot. In contrast, the partisan primaries held in 2020 had a much lower share of competitive races, with 41 percent of the 81 races featuring more than one candidate.  

Sightline computed the average turnout of all legislative races in each election year because the redrawing of legislative districts, required under federal law following each decennial census, prevented turnout comparisons of each legislative district individually. For example, state Senate District L in 20142020 was the Campbell Lake area in Anchorage. In 2022, redistricting reassigned Eagle River and Chugiak (about 25 miles to the northeast) to District L. 

Turnout grew regardless of voters’ political beliefs 

Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third-party voters all voted at higher rates in Alaska’s 2022 primaries than the previous decade’s average. Republicans (42 percent turnout), Democrats (39 percent), and nonpartisan (41 percent) voters all participated at similar rates.4 According to Alaska’s Division of Elections, “nonpartisan” means that a person is not associated with or does not support the policies or interests of a political party. “Undeclared” means a voter does not wish to declare an affiliation. Alaska’s automatic voter registration system labels voters as undeclared by default and they can opt to select a different political affiliation.
  

Only a slightly higher share of registered Republican voters came out compared with nonpartisans and Democrats. Because registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in Alaska nearly two to one, similar percent turnout among those groups means nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats failed to vote. 

This similarity in turnout percentages across political backgrounds is not surprising. In general elections, voter turnout by political affiliation in Alaska shows a similar pattern across multiple years. Republican turnout mostly (though not always) only slightly exceeds turnout by Democrats and independent voters. 

Why Alaska voter turnout may have increased in 2022   

After a single primary, how certain is it that the introduction of nonpartisan open primaries drove turnout to the highest percentage in a decade? Not very, as no single factor drives turnout. Compelling candidates, competitive races, the importance of offices in play, media coverage, and the logistics of voting, among other variables, all can affect a voter’s decision to cast a ballot.   

The ballot featured every statewide race. In Alaska, primary election years in which all major statewide races appeared on the ballot registered higher turnout. Different term lengths for the governor, lieutenant governor, US Senate, and US House seats mean these offices are not always up for simultaneous reelection. The years 2010 and 2014 were the most recent election years before nonpartisan open primaries debuted in which all the major races appeared on the ballot. Turnout was high both years.    

However, comparing overall turnout in 2010 and 2014 to 2022 may not be apples to apples because, in addition to every major race, the 2010 and 2014 primary elections included at least one ballot measure that drew widespread interest. In 2010, two ballot measures appeared in the primary. One was a failed attempt to ban state and local governments from using public funds to lobby or campaign. The second, which voters approved, required females under age 18 to notify a parent or guardian before having an abortion. In 2014, the Alaska primary included a measure to repeal tax breaks to oil companies, which ultimately failed.5In 2014, more than 7,000 voters chose not to vote in the candidate races, instead requesting the “measures only” ballot.
  

The 2022 primary ballot, likewise, included another election that may have increased voting: the special ranked choice general election for US House, which shared a ballot with the regular primary election. This election marked the debut of ranked choice voting in Alaska and determined who would serve out the term of one of the state’s best-known politicians. 

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  • Every major race was competitive. By allowing all candidates, including independents and third-party hopefuls, to enter the primary using the same process, election reforms appeared to influence the appearance of a larger, more diverse and competitive candidate pool in the statewide races. The rise of more competitive races may in turn have boosted voter interest. In 2022, 100 percent of all statewide races, for governor, lieutenant governor, and Congress, were competitive, meaning each contest had more than one candidate. In no election year as far back as 2010 had every statewide race been competitive.   

    High-profile candidates participated. Though Alaskans have mixed feelings about former governor Sarah Palin, she remains a minor political celebrity. Palin’s presence in the US House race may have galvanized many Alaska voters. Senator Murkowski may have had a similar effect.  

    Open primaries made voting easier for independents. Before 2022, Alaska held two separate state-funded primaries, with the rules set by the major political parties. Republicans opted for semi-closed primaries, meaning only Republican and independent voters could participate. Democrats and third parties offered a combined ballot open to all registered voters. 

    Voters wishing to participate had to request either a Republican party primary ballot or a primary ballot shared by the Alaska Democratic party and minor parties. In either case, voters only had the chance to weigh in on some fraction of the candidates but not the whole field. 

    Every voter in the 2022 nonpartisan open primaries could obtain the same ballot with every candidate listed in every race. Independents, who make up close to two-thirds of Alaska’s electorate, no longer had to choose between ballots. And voters were less likely to fill out the wrong ballot only to have it rejected. Voters were also freed from having to disclose their party affiliation in front of poll workers and others at their polling places. The simplified logistics of 2022 may have enhanced turnout.  

    Voters received more election information. The 2022 primary was big news. In addition to the high-profile statewide races, the election included all but one seat in the legislature, an unusual situation necessitated by redistricting. In a typical election year, all 40 state House seats and 10 state Senate seats appear on the ballot. In 2022, the full House and 19 Senate seats were on ballots because decennial redistricting had so dramatically changed the legislative boundaries of nearly all districts. The debut of the new primary system, combined with competitive races, candidates with statewide name recognition, and more races overall, likely led to more media coverage and voter awareness. And with so many candidates running, the proliferation of campaign activities—ads, door-knocking, texts, calls, and emails—also encouraged Alaskans to vote. 

    Low turnout in Alaska’s closed presidential primaries   

    Alaska’s presidential primaries in 2024 presented an interesting contrast to the open primaries of 2022. Presidential primaries are distinct from statewide primaries. While the state pays for all other primaries, the Democratic and Republican Parties finance and manage the presidential primaries. Federal law allows parties to run them in different ways, including caucuses and closed primaries.  

    In 2024 presidential primary turnout among registered Republicans was just 7 percent. The Alaska Republican primary caucus that put forth former president Donald Trump as the nominee included 10,554 voters, or 2 percent of all registered voters.  

    With no nominee but President Joe Biden running in its primary, the Alaska Democratic party in April held a voice vote by phone and in person to confirm him as the nominee. Looking back to 2020, 19,589 registered Democrats returned ballots in the by-mail primary. Turnout among registered Democrats was 26 percent, with President Biden besting Senator Bernie Sanders. Of all registered voters, just 3 percent put Biden on Alaska’s 2020 general election ballot as the presidential candidate.   

    Nonpartisan open primaries didn’t hurt and may have even helped Alaska’s voter turnout 

    After a single election, making strong claims about how nonpartisan open primaries affected turnout in Alaska seems premature. The new primaries may have led to decade-high turnout by allowing independent votes to participate more easily and boosting the share of competitive races. But other significant factors likely influenced voter participation as well. All major statewide contests appeared on the ballot, a factor proven to increase turnout. In addition, the large number of campaigns and media coverage of consequential races and candidates may have reminded or inspired more people to vote.  

    At a minimum, though, it’s clear that nonpartisan open primaries did not hurt, and may have helped, turnout in Alaska. Evidence from other states shows similar trends, with open primary states posting double the turnout (21 percent) of states with more restrictive rules (9 percent), according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Alaska’s next nonpartisan open primary, on August 20, 2024, may provide additional clarity.