Opinions

It's time for Alaskans to change the way we vote

"Government is broken ... too partisan ... not enough cooperation." We hear this, and nod -- yet every other November, we accept the choice of voting between candidates who are on the ballot solely because of their partisanship. Our antiquated election laws produce exactly the result most Americans say we don't want.

Alaskans have the power to fix the problem, and to provide a model for the nation.

In two statewide elections in the last four years, Alaskans chose candidates who had not won the primary election of any political party: U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010 and now Gov. Bill Walker. Their victories should not surprise anyone. Only 46 percent of Alaskan voters affiliate themselves with any political party. Yet it both cases, it's only because of extraordinary circumstances that Alaskans had the chance to elect less partisan candidates -- circumstances unlikely to be repeated. And in two years, Murkowski may again get "primaried," regardless of the preferences of the majority of Alaskans.

Getting an opportunity to elect less partisan candidates shouldn't be so hard.

Municipal elections in Alaska and most of the country are nonpartisan, and local government often works more cooperatively than state legislatures and Congress. Yet at the state and national level, we are forced to rely on political parties to choose the only candidates available to us. Prevailing election law provides Alaskans with a practical choice between candidates chosen by a self-selected group of 27 percent of Alaskan voters (registered Republicans) and another self-selected group of 14 percent of the voters (registered Democrats). Some nonpartisan and undeclared voters pick up one primary ballot or another, but not enough to change the fact that the candidates compete to please their party's base, not the Alaskan majority. Candidates can run as independents, but if there are three strong candidates, the winner will have support from less than 50 percent of the electorate -- possibly less than 40 percent. It's time to update election law to make it fair and democratic.

There are numerous ways, other than partisan primaries, to democratically select the men and women who make and administer the laws that affect us all. Each method has different benefits and problems; none is perfect. Perhaps the style of election that works out the most fairly is a system used on a state or national level in Australia and Ireland, and in some municipal elections in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and New Zealand: a "preferential" or "rank" voting system, using an "instant runoff." The instant runoff also saves public money by eliminating the need for a primary election. In the general election only, voters rank their choices by preference: 1, 2, 3, 4, ... as many as the number of candidates running for each office. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the No. 1 choices, that person wins. If not, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the ballots that had that person as their first choice are then redistributed according to those voters' second choice. If there is still no one with a majority, the next to the bottom candidate is eliminated, and those votes redistributed, and so on, until a candidate gets the necessary 50 percent plus one for a democratic outcome. In the centuries before computers, such a system would have been too cumbersome, but now it can be accomplished easily.

Political parties would continue. They have the constitutional right of Freedom of Assembly. They do not have the right to force Alaskans to subsidize them by paying for primary elections that produce candidates that the parties want and the majority of Alaskans may not. Under preferential voting, there would be no need for parties to choose candidates in advance of the general election. They would be free to do so if they choose, in a primary or a convention, but they would have to pay for it. Having the official designation of a political party, and the power of the party to raise and donate money, would certainly help a candidate accumulate votes. But with instant runoff, independent candidates would have a fighting chance of reaching a majority. With no primary, candidates would be motivated to run on platforms designed to appeal to the majority of voters, rather than to the majority of members of a party. Once elected, legislators would likely caucus with a major party, but with less need for the passionate no-compromise partisanship so common and so destructive in America today. Governors and mayors could remain nonpartisan.

Getting from current election law to a preferential, instant run-off system is not easy. Our current state legislators are unlikely to abandon the status quo process that got them elected. Fortunately, Alaskans have the power to make laws ourselves, though the initiative. Alaska could lead the nation towards less partisan politics, and towards getting back government that works.

Pam Brodie is a builder, stained glass worker and conservationist. She lives in Homer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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