Ask anyone who lives in our great state to describe it in one word, and you’ll hear “independent.”
From bumper stickers that say “We don’t care how they do it Outside,” to our unique business ventures (like kelp salsa!) and even our fashion choices, we do things our way. And our election system now encourages and rewards that independent Alaskan spirit, which will provide more choices for voters — just like we saw in this year’s special primary.
Getting through an election is difficult for any candidate – but especially those who, like most Alaskans, don’t belong to a political party. When I ran for office, an independent candidate could not appear on the primary ballot and had to collect a number of signatures from registered voters – at least 10% of the turnout in the last general election – to be on the November ballot. That number might not be massive if you are running for a House or Senate seat, but it was a huge task for a statewide office.
So that left candidates with a choice – either join a party to get those benefits or remain true to your independent Alaskan nature and jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to get the opportunity to serve your community. Instead of bringing more competition and free-thinking candidates, the system discouraged anyone who didn’t fit in a box and put them at a disadvantage before the voting even started.
That same system created a disincentive for elected Republicans and Democrats to express their independence and vote in the best interest of their constituents when it conflicted with partisan ideologies. There was a palpable fear of the closed primary system and potential retribution for not toeing the party line. I can recall several instances during my time as a legislator when, after a vote, a colleague and I would discuss the outcome, and they would tell me, “I wish I could’ve voted yes, but my party would chew me up.” They didn’t say constituents would be upset; they said the party would be mad at them.
More importantly, legislators would fear working across the aisle and focusing on what’s best for Alaska instead of their political party. Brave legislators who focused on executing the state’s business instead of the wishes of party leaders were punished; they often would not be back in Juneau the following session after losing to a more partisan candidate in the primary.
Thankfully, our Alaska-style election system gives new and long-lasting incentives to our elected leaders to think and vote independently – with Alaskans in mind above party. The open primary is just that – open to all Alaskans who want to serve their community and open to all voters to choose among any candidate on the ballot. The ranked choice general election then requires candidates to earn the support of a majority of voters. This voter-centered process has already been incredibly successful and will encourage real leadership and independent thought and action with elected officials answering directly to their real bosses – Alaska’s voters.
Jason Grenn is a fourth-generation Alaskan and former independent Alaska state representative. He now serves as the executive director for Alaskans for Better Elections.
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