Power to the people: Alaska should return to open primaries

It was Nov. 8, 1955. when delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention gathered at the University of Alaska outside Fairbanks. There were men and women; Republicans, Democrats and Independents. There were 55 in total—a number chosen to replicate a convention in Philadelphia in 1787 that gave birth to the greatest political document in modern history, the Constitution of the United States of America.

Alaska's founding mothers and fathers created the framework for what would become the guiding light of the 49th state in the Union. They dared to envision a state that embraced hard work, but also teamwork; Personal liberties and freedom, but also a corresponding commitment to the greater good. They knew in a place like Alaska, prosperity could only be achieved if we worked together.

Sixty years later, these ideals live on in the Last Frontier. When you tow a neighbor's car out of a ditch or invite friends to share in this year's salmon or moose harvest, you don't ask them how they voted in the last election before doing it. We are all in it together.

One aspect of our political system is out of step with our history and our culture: primary elections. Alaska conducts closed partisan primaries, a system which reduces the voting power of the majority of Alaskans and empowers the existing two-party system. A majority of Alaskans choose not to align themselves with either political party – and yet 98 percent of our state legislators choose to brand themselves as Republicans or Democrats. It is time for Alaskans to call the closed primary system what it truly is: a direct subsidy of state dollars to two political parties that most Alaskans feel aren't worth joining.

Luckily, there is a growing movement here in Alaska to reinstate an open primary system, a form of which (the blanket primary) we had for most of our modern history. A nonpartisan, "top two" primary system requires all candidates appear on a single primary ballot. All voters, whether registered to a party or not, are allowed to participate. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party.

It's simple. But the impact is significant.

Nonpartisan primaries create more competitive elections, give power back to the voters, and create a Alaska Legislature that works for the people, not the parties and the special interest groups that fund their every maneuver. Here in Alaska 54 percent of voters do not wish to enroll in a political party. This says something about who we are and the independence and collaboration we want from our leaders.

Under a top two system, candidates who want to get elected are required to campaign to all the voters, not just members of their own party.

Unlike most political fights in America, the adoption of nonpartisan primaries is not a battle fought between Democratic interest groups and Republican interest groups. It is a fight between interest groups of both parties and the rest of us—"We the People." It's why a rapidly expanding coalition of independents and free-thinking Democrats and Republicans are working on delivering nonpartisan, open primaries here in Alaska and across the nation.

No Alaskan should be forced to choose between two candidates selected by the handful of party loyalists who choose to vote in Alaska's closed primaries. And anyone seeking office should explain their vision and defend their actions to all the voters, not just party activists. The current primary voting system fails both of these tests.

Alaskans don't take the easy way out. We believe in personal responsibility. We do the hard work. And we believe in teamwork. A return to the open primary system in Alaska not only honors our past, but also prepares us for a prosperous future. We invite you to learn more at www.openprimariesak.org and join our growing movement.

Joe Hardenbrook was director of Creating Alaska, a three-year University of Alaska project commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alaska's Constitutional Convention. He also served as a finance committee aide to former Sen. Joe Thomas for six years on the Alaska Senate Bipartisan Working Group.

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, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com