Among the selling points of Ballot Measure 2, the initiative that instituted ranked-choice voting in Alaska, was a promise that without party-controlled primaries, our state’s elections would see a broader selection of candidates. As Democratic and Republican leaders wouldn’t be in a position to discourage those without the parties’ blessing, the theory was that more Alaskans would step forward for consideration.
In the first election under the new system, to fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat after the death of Rep. Don Young, that theory appears to be very, very correct.
A whopping 48 candidates are in the running to succeed Young, some of whom don’t even live in Alaska. Although it’s an extreme example, it’s a heartening one — in what prior statewide race have voters been virtually guaranteed enough diversity of candidates that they’re sure to find one who aligns with their political views?
And make no mistake, there’s a candidate — or several — for just about everyone. Sixteen Republicans, six Democrats, a dozen nonpartisans, 10 undeclared, two Libertarians, one Alaskan Independence Party and one American Independence Party candidate are all in the running. For the primary at least, voters’ biggest challenge will be doing enough research to feel secure in their choice of a candidate, with four dozen options from which to choose.
For that reason, some candidates with higher profiles have a big head start already. Despite sharply varied assessments of her merits, former Gov. Sarah Palin is a contender simply by virtue of her near-universal name recognition — only Santa Claus, who is also in the running, is as well known, and voters may want to know more about him before casting their ballots to ensure they don’t end up with a metaphorical stocking full of coal.
But though other candidates aren’t as well known, that doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of voters’ attention or support. On the contrary, it’s crucial that Alaskans get up to speed on who’s running and aligns with them best. In addition to efforts by the candidates themselves, the Division of Elections will be furnishing information on those in the running, and the ADN will also poll candidates for their positions on issues of importance to our state.
Part of that education campaign should focus on the form of the special primary — it will be the first statewide vote-by-mail election. That’s no major hurdle for those in Anchorage or other municipalities that have already switched to mail-in ballots for local elections, but the vast majority of Alaska communities haven’t conducted a completely mail-in election before, so many residents who are unfamiliar with the process will need assistance with how it works. For its own part, the Division of Elections should make sure it’s prepared so that the mail-in system runs smoothly and maintains Alaskans’ trust. Elections in Alaska and across the country have already established that voting by mail is safe, easy and secure — let’s keep that record up.
Ranked-choice voting’s debut
After the primary is decided, the special general election will be Alaska’s first ranked-choice election, on Aug. 16. Complicating matters, it will be on the same ballot as the state’s primary election, but only the U.S. House race will be ranked-choice. The prospect of educating Alaskans not only on ranked-choice voting, but also on the bifurcated nature of the August ballot, will be a special challenge for the state, and one they should put extra resources into to make sure it goes smoothly.
Fortunately, the state won’t be alone in its voter-education effort; the Alaskans for Better Elections group that championed ranked-choice voting in the 2020 ballot initiative is also mounting an education campaign. It will take hard work on both their parts, as well as a good-faith effort by Alaskans, to ensure the new system doesn’t catch less-engaged voters flatfooted. If it has not already done so, the Legislature should augment the budget of the Division of Elections to support its education campaign; voter confidence in the system is crucial, and voters understanding how it works is crucial to maintaining that confidence and trust.
The special election to fill Alaska’s U.S. House seat offers a challenge and an opportunity to bring voters up to speed on its new voting system — and also to showcase the merits of that system in helping select candidates that might be more broadly supported. We’ve all got jobs to do between now and the special primary and general elections. Before the primary, read up on the candidates and make sure your voter registration is up to date. After the primary, familiarize yourself with ranked-choice voting and decide on your order of preference for the four general-election candidates — and make sure your friends and family do the same. The better informed we are going into the voting booth — or, in the case of the primary, dropping our ballots in the mail — the better leadership we’ll have when the dust settles afterward.