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Politics

New ballot initiative seeks to change state elections

JUNEAU — A new three-part ballot initiative filed Wednesday with the state Division of Elections seeks to change Alaska’s election system and eliminate so-called “dark money” contributions in political campaigns.

Under the new “ranked-choice” voting system, Alaskans would be able to state their preference for multiple candidates — ranking them in order, 1-2-3-4 — instead of choosing only one preferred candidate.

If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate receiving the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The votes are then re-tallied, and any voter whose first choice was eliminated has their vote tallied under the candidate they selected as their second pick. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes.

The 25-page text of the initiative also replaces the state’s primary elections with a single statewide primary in which all Alaskans, regardless of party affiliation, can vote.

“This opens it to an open primary with a little twist: The ranked choice voting is the little twist,” said Bonnie Jack of Anchorage, one of the initiative’s sponsors.

Under the new primary system, according to the initiative, candidates would not be chosen by party. Instead, the primary would simply serve to narrow the electoral field to four finalists at most. Four Republicans might advance from the primary to the general election, as might four independents, four Alaskan Independence Party members, four Democrats or some mix of political affiliations.

A third portion of the initiative prohibits “dark money" political contributions. Those are defined as political donations “whose source or sources ... is not disclosed to the public.”

The initiative was written by a team including Scott Kendall, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker. It’s been backed by a group calling itself Alaskans for Better Elections, which lists former independent state Rep. Jason Grenn, Juneau Democrat Bruce Botelho and Jack, a Republican, among its officers.

“The ballot measure is kind of a three-pronged attack on making our elections better,” Grenn said.

Alaska Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the initiative had been submitted with 100 signatures, enough to qualify it for review. The division and lieutenant governor now have 60 days to confirm the validity of the signatures and review the initiative for legality.

If Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer deems the ballot measure legal, supporters will need to gather 28,501 signatures from election districts across the state in order to qualify for the 2020 ballot. Those signatures must be turned in to the Division of Elections before the start of next year’s regular legislative session. If not, the initiative would not appear before voters until 2022.

Kendall said by phone that the initiative has been in the works “for several months." Jack and Grenn, who participated in a ballot measure effort in 2017 and 2018 to toughen conflict-of-interest laws in the Legislature, joined the cause in the past few weeks at the encouragement of Kendall, they said.

Kendall said the goal is to create “good and better government” by encouraging the election of “legislators who can work together. They can work in a coalition, and they can be beholden to their entire district, not just a narrow, divided, primary electorate.”

Asked who paid for the work to draft the initiative, Kendall said “there’s really a collection of interests” inside and outside the state. Grenn referred to it as “kind of a hodgepodge."

While he declined to say who those interests are, he said there’s “no hiding the ball there” and the backers are likely to contribute to the campaign financially, and so will be identified there.

He said it’s not a partisan effort.

“It impacts the Democratic Party the same way it impacts the Republican Party. It impacts an environmental group the same way as the American Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

Jack said she hopes it encourages more people to vote in statewide elections.

“You end up being able to vote for the person you want,” she said. “Everybody runs against everybody.”

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