Alaska leads the way in addressing the primary problem in our politics

Alaskans have an innate sense of pride for our state: the sheer beauty, diversity of resources, and fantastic quality of life give us a lot to be proud of. There’s perhaps no more important responsibility we have than ensuring our state remains a beacon bright for our children and grandchildren to prosper.

The best way to allow for this? Changing the incentives our elected lawmakers face at the state and national levels, so they can focus on what’s in the best interest of all Alaskans, and find lasting solutions to the unique challenges our communities face.

However, our election system doesn’t always yield these incentives: Far too often, partisanship and the fear of being “primaried” stands in the way of meaningful, bipartisan compromise.

Throughout my career in the Alaska Legislature — where I served in the House from 2001-2007, and in the Senate from 2007-2017 — I watched thoughtful, common-sense, moderate Republicans lose in primary elections.

Last year, for example, at least five of the seven Republicans who lost in primaries did so for working across the aisle to find solutions, three of whom were members of the bipartisan House majority coalition. Two other Republican Senate leaders were at odds with the governor and party officials for fighting against his irresponsible plan to unsustainably spend from the Permanent Fund: They lost in primaries where fewer than 20% of voters determined the outcome for the entire district.

This systemic problem is a result of closed party primaries, where few, extreme partisan voters previously nominated our leaders.

The problem is not unique to the state of Alaska, nor the Republican Party. According to a new report from the Unite America Institute, 83% of members of the U.S. House of Representatives were elected by just 10% of Americans nationwide — incentivizing leaders to appeal to a small, unrepresentative base of voters and giving outsized influence to the partisan and ideologically extreme wings of the electorate.


I was grateful when the Alaskans for Better Elections campaign launched, and eagerly joined the steering committee of bipartisan leaders committed to addressing this “Primary Problem.”

Following the passage of Ballot Measure 2 this past November, Alaska is now leading the way in addressing the issue through nonpartisan primary reform.

In addition to ending the secret influence of dark money, the reform creates one nonpartisan primary open to all voters; all candidates will appear on the same primary ballot, incentivizing them to represent all of their constituents, not just their party’s faithful. Political parties still have the right to endorse candidates (just as they do now), but they no longer get to use taxpayer dollars in partisan primaries not open to all voters.

The top four primary finishers will advance to the general election, where voters are empowered to rank candidates in order of preference; the rankings will be used to ensure whoever is elected has majority support. This new system will give more voice and choice to Alaska voters.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be punished for working across the aisle if it means solving problems that voters elected them to address.

Nonpartisan primaries incentivize our leaders to govern in Alaskan’s interest, without the vulnerability of being “primaried” for making a compromise or voting on a bill that a majority of constituents support.

Through reform, our state has a tremendous opportunity to lead the nation in liberating leaders from partisan primaries, beginning with nonpartisan state and federal primary elections in 2022.

Other states should seize on our momentum: It only takes one state to change the face of elections from the ground up.

Alaska leads the way, and we should be ever proud to do so.

Lesil McGuire served six years in the Alaska State House (2001-2007) and 10 years in the State Senate (2007-2017).

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Lesil McGuire

Lesil McGuire is a lifelong Alaskan, former state senator, women’s and rural rights advocate, and mother. She lives in Anchorage and works as a consultant in the aerospace, technological innovation and Arctic policy sectors.