They did it. Alaska’s budget, which passed the Legislature last week, was a classic political compromise, with a smaller divided check than many would have liked but larger spending on education and other public goods the state clearly needs.
Nobody got everything they wanted, but half a loaf beats nothing at all. While normal politics is usually nothing to celebrate, it does seem like a step forward after the past few years.
The return to normalcy was based around the resurrection of cross-party coalitions in both the Senate — the key mover in budget negotiations — and the House. Compromise came before party loyalty. In the Senate, Republicans joined with Democrats to form a strong supermajority caucus. In the House, 19 Republicans formed a coalition with two independents and two Democrats, marginalizing some of the more extreme voices in the chamber.
Such “cross-partisan” majorities are rare in American politics, but historically not that unusual in Alaska, where one or both chambers of the state Legislature have often been controlled by multiparty majorities including Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
However, Alaska has not been immune to the partisan polarization that now characterizes the U.S. Congress and so many state legislatures, with both conservative and liberal politicians staking out extreme positions on culture-war issues such as trans rights, the politics of race, climate change, and some of Alaska’s idiosyncratic issues such as “federal government overreach” and the politics of the state’s budget and Permanent Fund dividend.
Party primaries in the past decade increasingly saw more extreme candidates defeat more mainstream candidates. Roger Holland’s defeat of Senate President Cathy Giessel in 2020 typified this trend.
These “closed” primaries — still the norm in most of the country — have more restricted electorates and often exclude independent voters who identify with no party. Yet they essentially chose the winner in districts that are safe for that party. Politicians thus have strong incentives to hew to the preferences of the primary electorate rather than all voters.
By encouraging politicians to take more extreme views, such primaries also make our legislatures increasingly dysfunctional. Instead of meeting in the middle to find solutions both sides can live with, they drive legislators further apart and make it harder to agree.
Equally important is the impact on legislative style. Regardless of how conservative or liberal their views are, primaries incentivize intransigence over compromise to please party militants. This is a recipe for the gridlock on full display right now in the debt limit crisis in Washington, D.C.
Our research suggests that Alaska’s new final-four election system — a single-vote primary for all voters to select up to four candidates, followed by a ranked-choice vote general election — has helped arrest these trends in Juneau and maybe even reverse them.
With as many as four candidates competing at the general election, voters have a greater array of ideological choices than under the old system, including candidates who are a bit more moderate or centrist. The ranked-choice general election allows voters to express their strength of feeling between candidates, who are encouraged to reach out beyond their base.
The new system doesn’t prevent very strong conservatives or liberals from winning — if they represent a majority of their district. After all, conservative Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy easily won reelection under the system. So did Rep. David Eastman.
But it has released legislators from being hostage to the party primary while allowing more voters to influence election outcomes and giving them a greater range of choices.
In 2022, the new system spurred Cathy Giessel to make a comeback. Under the new “tundra” primary, she was able to progress to a general election, where the electorate preferred her relatively moderate Republicanism to her more conservative incumbent opponent.
Of course, none of this means that the governor and the two houses of the Legislature will come together and sing “Kumbaya” over divisive issues, such as the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. The two coalitions in the Legislature differ greatly, and Dunleavy has his own views. The American separation of powers is designed to create precisely this sort of conflict between branches and for one to check the other.
But ultimately, after all the jockeying, arguing and wrangling, the competing branches must compromise for government to function. The results may not always be pretty, and watching the process — often likened to sausage-making — certainly is not. But it’s vital to making the American system work.
Final-four voting gives this process a boost and helps assure that Alaska will maintain its independent — and very American — traditional style of government.
Glenn Wright, David Lublin and Benjamin Reilly are political scientists at the University of Alaska Southeast, American University, and the East-West Centre, respectively.
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