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Supporters of election-reform ballot measure appeal rejection to courts

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: September 9, 2019
  • Published September 9, 2019

A ballot measure group is challenging Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer’s decision to prohibit their initiative from moving closer to a statewide vote.

On Thursday, Alaskans for Better Elections filed suit in Alaska Superior Court, asking a judge to overturn Meyer’s action and allow the group to begin gathering signatures for a 2020 vote.

“By refusing to certify (the measure), the lieutenant governor has denied the citizens of Alaska the opportunity to lawfully exercise their right to the ballot initiative guaranteed by Article XI of the Alaska Constitution,” the suit states in part.

The chairman of the group, former independent Anchorage representative Jason Grenn, did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment.

The measure backed by Alaskans for Better Elections is one of four moving through the process ahead of the 2020 election. There also is an ongoing recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Backed by several Outside groups, Alaskans for Better Elections is seeking to implement ranked-choice voting in Alaska. That electoral system, used in Maine, would allow Alaskans to pick multiple candidates on the statewide ballot. They would rank them in order, 1-2-3-4, rather than picking just one person.

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.

As part of that process, the state’s existing party-based primary elections would be replaced with an open primary designed to narrow the field to four general election candidates at most. That could result in situations where multiple Republicans or Democrats face each other in the general election.

Other sections of the 25-page initiative would put new restrictions on “dark money” political contributions. The measure defines those as political donations “whose source or sources ... is not disclosed to the public.”

In a legal analysis dated Aug. 29, Attorney General Kevin Clarkson recommended that the lieutenant governor reject the initiative because in the view of the Alaska Department of Law, it violates a constitutional clause requiring ballot measures to be restricted to one subject.

Considered individually, Clarkson wrote, the elements of the initiative pass constitutional muster, but as a collective, they represent “a bridge too far under the single-subject rule.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, is unaffiliated with the ballot measure but believes the state’s rejection is a serious matter because of the precedent it could set. Wielechowski is a lawyer and disagrees with Clarkson’s opinion.

In a Facebook post explaining his reasoning, he wrote that the state’s legal opinion is “a catastrophically wrong decision because all these issues are related to elections. If upheld, this would overturn dozens of other laws, including the recently passed crime bill.”

Thursday’s lawsuit, brought by attorneys Scott Kendall and Jahna Lindemuth of Holmes, Weddle and Barcott, requests a preliminary injunction allowing signature gathering to begin no later than Sept. 16. Under the state’s rules for ballot measures, any 2020 initiative must be backed by the signatures of no fewer than 28,501 registered voters, and those signatures must be provided before the start of next year’s Legislative session.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law said the agency does not discuss ongoing litigation.

According to campaign finance reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Alaskans for Better Elections has been predominantly funded by a handful of nonpartisan Outside political groups that have collectively contributed more than $43,000 in staff time or cash to the ballot initiative group.

Represent.Us, a Massachusetts-based group, is the largest, having offered $15,000 in support. The Voters’ Right to Know project, which supports transparency in political contributions, has given $11,000. FairVote, a Maryland-based group backing ranked-choice voting nationwide, has contributed $10,000. American Promise, another Massachusetts-based group, has given $7,500. Alaska contributions are less than $1,000.

In addition to the staff time recorded on financial disclosure forms, the ballot measure group’s largest single expense has been an estimated $20,000 bill for legal services.

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