As the dust settles from Anchorage’s municipal election, the shape of the local political landscape for the next year is becoming clearer, and it looks pretty similar to the way it did going into the election. Given the absence of major upsets or upheavals, it could be tempting to write the contest off as a stalemate that doesn’t tell us much about the way the municipality is headed. But a closer look at the results does, in fact, offer some lessons.
1. Nobody has carte blanche approval for their plans.
The most closely watched races, for five Assembly seats, saw three liberal incumbents notch wins and one open Eagle River seat stay in conservative hands, while one incumbent, John Weddleton, was narrowly unseated by challenger Randy Sulte in South Anchorage. Mayor Dave Bronson and his allies had pushed hard for conservative challengers to defeat the incumbents, and voters’ decision to largely retain the current Assembly should be seen as a signal from voters that they’re fairly comfortable with the Assembly as a check on the mayor’s office rather than a rubber stamp on Bronson’s policies. At the same time, Bronson’s mayoral win last year and the loss of a centrist voice on the Assembly to Bronson ally Sulte shows that the left-leaning Assembly majority isn’t in the driver’s seat either. Despite their differences, the city’s executive and legislative branches will have to redouble efforts to find common ground where they can so that Anchorage can keep moving forward.
2. Anchorage’s electorate is divided — and diverse.
As the counterbalanced makeup of the Assembly and mayor’s office show, as do many of the close margins in municipal races, there are stark differences of opinion in how the city should be run. But don’t mistake Anchorage’s results as a classic blue-and-red deadlock: Although school board incumbents won their races, the school bond was defeated. Anchorage’s voters have varying priorities and needs — for instance, voters on the Hillside may view homelessness very differently than those in Midtown. Elected officials shouldn’t fall into the trap of an “us vs. them” mentality — and neither should voters. Even though we often disagree with one another, we’re all in this rich and diverse city together.
3. Voters are apprehensive about signing off on big expenses.
Historically, Anchorage voters have been supportive of schools, but the big $111 million bond to repair and replace facilities failed. Anchorage School District officials sensed trepidation at the sticker shock of the proposal and sent out mailers promising they wouldn’t make an ask for further bonding authority next year if the measure passed, but ultimately, residents still wouldn’t sign off. Different voters had different motivations for their choices, but it’s clear that many were hesitant to OK major capital spending amid substantial economic uncertainty, inflation and a still-present pandemic. Additionally, the emergence of neighborhood opposition to the school bond’s biggest item, the replacement of Inlet View Elementary School, drew “no” votes from quarters that are typically staunch backers of education.
Voters weren’t averse to bonds altogether, however: Smaller bonds for parks, first responders and other items passed easily, showing that residents were happy to make targeted investments in common priorities. That lesson — to make bonds smaller and more focused — might help ASD regain support for its bonds in future years.
4. Big money has made its way to local races.
In the first campaigns since Alaska’s limits on campaign contributions were struck down by the courts, it was a no-holds-barred money fight. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Assembly races where candidates might have raised half that amount before. The increased spending in local races isn’t a negative by default, but it certainly makes campaigns an uphill battle for those who don’t have deep-pocketed supporters — and, given the anemic state of the Alaska Public Offices Commission’s ability to enforce reporting requirements, it raises the specter of campaigns being able to pay their way out of fundraising misdeeds after an election win. It’s past time for the Legislature to take action to give APOC the tools it needs so that voters can have confidence campaigns are being contested fairly.
5. Vote-by-mail works.
Alaskans across the state will be mailing in ballots in the special primary for U.S. House in two months, but Anchorage already has the system well in hand — there was little of the misunderstanding and errant markings that plagued ballots in last year’s mayoral election. From education campaigns by the clerk’s office to the extensive network of secure ballot drop boxes to the online system whereby voters could check on their ballot’s status and make sure it was counted without incident, it’s clear that the municipality has worked the bugs out of its by-mail voting system. Election results have been reported and updated promptly, ballot counting has been transparent and there have been no credible reports of problems with the voting or counting systems. The state Division of Elections would do well to take a page out of Anchorage’s book when it comes to conducting June’s special by-mail primary. And voters can rest assured that their votes will be counted just the same as they would be if they were standing in a voting booth in person.