Leveraging Our Differences

Alaska decides to switch to open primaries and ranked elections

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Alaskans have narrowly approved a sweeping revamp of their election rules, delivering one of the year's biggest victories to democracy reformers.

Adoption of the ballot initiative immediately pushes the nation's most expansive and remote state to a central place of honor for "good governance" groups, because the measure embraces two of their main goals: elections that are less monopolized by the major parties and campaign financing that's more transparent.

The victory became clear only Tuesday night, two weeks after the voting ended, thanks to the state's uniquely slow pace for tabulating mailed ballots. Because of the pandemic they accounted for two out of every five votes in Alaska this fall, and counting them reversed what looked like a likely defeat for the package. But with nearly complete results, the proposal has prevailed by 3,700 votes out of 343,000 cast — a margin of 1 percentage point.

As a result, starting in two years Alaska will replace traditional partisan primaries with single contests open to all candidates for governor and other state executive offices, each seat in the Legislature and the three spots in Congress. The top four finishers, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the general election, at which point voters will rank their options to decide the winner. And all legislative and local races will face strict new disclosure requirements about the sources of campaign spending.

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While a handful of states have adopted open top-two primary systems, Alaska will be the first with primaries that advance even more candidates to the November ballot — increasing the likelihood that people who are not Republicans or Democrats will be able to compete in many races.

And Alaska will become only the second state, after Maine, to use ranked-choice voting statewide. Voters in Massachusetts decided this month not to join them.

"This is a victory for all Alaskans regardless of their political leaning. We now have an electoral system that lives up to Alaska's independent streak by saying 'to hell with politics let's do what is right for Alaska,'" said Shea Siegert, who managed the ballot measure campaign.

Proponents included the League of Women Voters, Open Primaries, the state employees union and the Libertarian Party. They argued that approval would shed light on the secretive flow of money into the state's political and governing system, curb the power of the two big parties and further promote centrist and independent candidates, who already have a better-than-average record of success in the state.

"The Last Frontier has become a beacon of hope for our nation: a real-time example of how to put voters first and reduce extremism, polarization and corruption in politics," said Josh Silver, CEO and co-founder of RepresentUs, another group that promoted the measure.

The main opposition came from a group dubbed Defend Alaska Elections, which was funded primarily by Republican campaign arms and fiscal conservative groups. It said the measure would sow voter confusion and complained the state was being used as a democracy reform laboratory by special-interest groups in the Lower 48.

Republican Lisa Murkowski is up for re-election to a fifth Senate term in two years, and former Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice-presidential candidate, has hinted she's ready to mount a comeback by challenging the senator. Under the new system, both well-known and presumably well-funded candidates would have a solid shot at making the November ballot.

In so-called RCV contests, voters list in order of preference the candidates they like. The race ends if one candidate is the top choice on a majority of ballots. Otherwise, an instant runoff takes place. The candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes is eliminated, the ballots ranking that person on top are assigned to the voters' second choices — the process repeating until one candidate emerges with majority support.

After traditional and unchanged presidential primaries, ranked-choice voting would also be used to award Alaska's three electoral votes under the referendum. Elections for municipal posts would not be altered.

The final element of the measure will require additional disclosure of contributions to independent expenditure groups and about the sources of contributions to candidate coffers — generally when the amounts topped $2,000. And it will require disclaimers on campaign advertising by organizations funded by mostly out-of-state money.

Under federal election campaign law, candidates for Congress in the state will still benefit from independent expenditures having no reporting obligations.

"Today's win is just the start. We will continue to work with our fellow Alaskans to ensure these reforms are seen for what they are — nonpartisan and practical," Siegert said. "Now the real work begins."

The other states with nonpartisan primaries advance just two candidates to the general election: Nebraska, Louisiana, Washington and California. A ballot measure that would have added Florida to the list failed to attain the 60 percent supermajority required this month.