OPINION: Alaska’s ranked choice voting system could save democracy

“Can Alaska save democracy?” Ten months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion on that subject saying, “Alaska may be next-to-last on the list of states, but it’s the first to employ the electoral reform that’s most likely to save democracy.” The opinion went on to note that “ranked choice voting fundamentally changes the competitive process, making it much easier for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the state’s moderate Republican, to fend off the challenge from opponent Kelly Tshibaka, endorsed by Donald Trump and Alaska’s GOP leadership. If every state used Alaska’s new system, Trump would be unable to exert his vise-like grip over the GOP.”

The 2020 statewide ballot initiative sponsored by Alaskans for Better Elections gave Alaskan voters three significant improvements. It eliminated closed primaries; required prospective governors and lieutenant governors to run as a team; and initiated ranked choice voting. All three changes expanded the power of voters to make informed choices and, by doing so, increased the power of each voter to give us democracy as defined by President Abraham Lincoln, i.e., “government of the People, by the People, for the People.”

Let’s have a look at the three improvements, starting with the elimination of closed primaries.

For several years only registered Republicans were allowed to vote for Republican candidates. This was a form of disenfranchisement, especially for the more than 60% of Alaska voters who see some benefit in the views of both major parties, Republican and Democrat, and wanted to vote for candidates such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a registered Republican who is often willing to support public programs that benefit Alaskans despite her party’s official position on the subject. Closed primaries encourage candidates to narrow their focus and emphasize their differences; whereas open primaries encourage them to widen their voter appeal by focusing on the greater public good.

The second change enacted in 2020 was the requirement that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run as a team. This change encourages gubernatorial candidates to choose lieutenants who balance and enhance their perspective and give their ticket wider appeal. The new gubernatorial/lieutenant governor contestants on the Nov. 8 ballot give voters the perspective of their diverse experience. All three teams are a man for governor and a woman for lieutenant governor. In the future, that pattern could vary.

The third and primary change enacted by the 2020 ballot initiative is ranked choice voting, which assures that the winning candidate has been chosen by the majority of the voters. The ballot allows voters to rank candidates in the order of their preference: first, second, third or fourth. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the total number of votes, then he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes become part of the overall total number of votes. Probably one candidate would have more than 50% of the votes at that point, but, if not, the process can be repeated by again eliminating the candidate with the lowest number of votes. Supporting this concept, candidates Les Gara and Bill Walker have each said they would rank one another as their second-choice candidate on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Critics claim this process is confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Give it a little thought, and it is as easy as one, two, three. Well, four in our case.


Ranked choice voting is a worthwhile change for a number of reasons.

The first and most basic reason is that it respects the value of each person’s vote and the old-fashioned principle that candidates should be elected by majority vote. Under Alaska’s previous election system many of the winning candidates did not actually receive a majority of the votes. Ranked choice voting heightens the power of each vote by assuring that a majority is required to win.

The system is a good fit for Alaska. Polls have shown that more than 60% of Alaskan voters do not affiliate with the two major parties. We are more of an independent state than a red or a blue state.

The opportunity to rank candidates of all persuasions encourages voters to think beyond strict party lines and fosters voting for the greater good. Their thinking moves from “I” to “we” and encourages candidates such as Sen. Murkowski who has voted to support stronger infrastructure, including statewide internet access, veterans’ care, protection of women’s reproductive freedom, investment in renewable energy and environmental protection while making responsible decisions that provide and keep jobs.

Open primaries reduce political polarization, and encourage candidates to think in terms of the common good rather than political affiliation, i.e., what are the concerns and needs of the people of my district?

Finally, the legitimacy of these changes to conform to Alaska’s constitution has been challenged and withstood the test. On March 30, the Alaska Supreme Court confirmed the legitimacy of ranked choice voting.

Janet McCabe and her husband David came to Alaska in 1964. She is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a member of Alaska Common Ground and Commonwealth North.

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Janet McCabe

Janet McCabe is a member of Alaska Common Ground and a former Anchorage city planner.