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A look at 2020 elections: The next year promises politics galore for Alaska

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: December 28, 2019
  • Published December 27, 2019

Early voters waited in a line outside the Alaska Division of Elections office on Nov. 7, 2016, in Midtown Anchorage. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

Tired of politics after 2019? Bad news: It’s entirely possible that some Alaskans will go to the ballot box five times in 2020.

Five elections, all with advertising, public debate and more.

In the coming year, Alaska has a statewide general election, a statewide primary, a Democratic presidential primary, the possibility of a special election, plus the usual municipal elections and anything that might come out of the Alaska Legislature.

Here’s a look at what we know you’ll see on ballots in the coming year, what might happen and what could be added in the coming months.

Get your calendar ready, and we’ll walk through the year from start to finish.

Ballot measures

Two statewide ballot measures are trying hard to make the cut for a vote in 2020, and backers have until Jan. 21 to get the 28,501 signatures they need. The first measure would increase taxes on older North Slope oil fields, and the second would implement ranked-choice voting in Alaska’s statewide elections, restrict so-called “dark money” campaign contributions and create an “open primary” for elections.

The oil tax initiative is shaping up to be a big fight. Groups for and against the measure have already collected more than $160,000 apiece and are beginning to advertise. The last time oil taxes were on the ballot, back in 2014, the two sides raised $15.3 million in the most expensive state-level political campaign in Alaska history.

There’s also a prospective ballot measure to move legislative sessions to Anchorage, but that measure hasn’t gotten the same level of attention, and a campaign finance report from October shows little activity. A fourth ballot measure, creating a “bill of rights” for Alaska education, has been abandoned.

Any measures that make the Jan. 21 cutoff would appear on the August primary ballot unless the Legislature fails to adjourn by its 90th day. If the legislative session runs longer, the measures would appear on the general election ballot in November.

Democratic presidential primary

Alaska’s Republican Party has canceled its 2020 presidential primary, throwing its support behind President Donald Trump, which means Alaska Democrats get the first election of the year on April 4. Only registered Democrats can participate in this election, unlike the party’s primary for state candidates. Alaska Democrats went hard for Bernie Sanders in 2016, but there are many more candidates in 2020. The Democrats are using ranked-choice voting in 2020, and absentee voting will be available.

The result of the 2020 presidential election is consequential for Alaska: Trump and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have similar views on environmental policy and economic development in the state, and a Democratic candidate will likely have different priorities.

Election workers Gail Loken, left, and Denise Martin look at damaged ballots at Anchorage's Election Center after the 2019 vote-by-mail municipal election. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

Municipal elections

Three days after the Democratic presidential primary is Anchorage’s municipal election on April 7. Valdez has its municipal election May 5, and most of the rest of the state will vote in local elections Oct. 6. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Metlakatla and a handful of other cities and boroughs will hold their municipal elections Nov. 3, alongside the statewide general election.

Constitutional amendments

Among the items on the Legislature’s lengthy agenda this session are 21 possible constitutional amendments, but only a few are being seriously considered.

It takes a two-thirds majority in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to send a proposed amendment to voters. That’s a high threshold to meet — it’s only happened three times since 2000. That said, both the Senate president and speaker of the House have expressed support for a tighter constitutional spending cap, an idea proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Some lawmakers and the governor have also said they support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the Permanent Fund dividend, but that idea has fewer supporters in the Legislature.

If those ideas (or something else) get enough support during the legislative session, they would show up on the November ballot.

Referendum

If lawmakers don’t pass a constitutional amendment, they might instead pass a law that changes the traditional PFD distribution formula in state law. That law hasn’t been followed since 2016, and almost every state legislator has said the law should be changed. There is no agreement on what the new formula should look like, however.

A significant number of Alaskans still support the traditional formula, and several state lawmakers said they expect that if the Legislature acts, there will be a movement to gather signatures and overturn that change via a ballot-box referendum. Any successful referendum would show up on the November ballot.

Bond measure

Earlier in 2019, the Alaska Municipal League approved a resolution asking the Legislature to borrow money for port, harbor and other infrastructure improvements. If the Legislature agrees, that request would go to the voters, who last approved a statewide bond measure in 2012.

August primary

After the Legislature adjourns, campaign season will begin in earnest, with candidates preparing for the Aug. 18 primary.

In statewide races, the primaries appear quiet so far. In the U.S. Senate race, no Republican candidates have registered to challenge incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan. Nonpartisan candidate Al Gross has no major challengers for the Democratic nomination and has already been endorsed by the Alaska Democratic Party and the national Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

The Senate has been the focal point of many of the nation’s biggest political fights in recent years, and Sullivan has been a reliable supporter of President Donald Trump. Gross is a doctor from Juneau with an interest in reforming Medicare.

In the U.S. House race, nonpartisan candidate Alyse Galvin has no registered opponents for the Democratic nomination in her second attempt to defeat Republican incumbent Rep. Don Young, who also faces no serious challengers so far.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, left, and Alyse Galvin are shown prior to a debate on Oct. 26, 2018, in Anchorage. Galvin, an independent who is running again in this year's Alaska Democratic primary, plans to challenge Young, a Republican who is the longest-serving member of the House. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

Young is the longest-serving active member of the House of Representatives, which is now controlled by a Democratic majority. Young defeated Galvin by just over 18,000 votes in 2018.

Among statehouse races, the primaries to watch will be those featuring Republicans who joined the coalition House majority. In particular, Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, has faced tough criticism from local Republicans, some of whom launched an unsuccessful recall campaign against him. In Anchorage, Rep. Chuck Kopp was nearly censured by his district party at its latest meeting.

In the Alaska Senate, supporters of the traditional dividend have expressed interest in challenging Senate President Cathy Giessel and Sen. Natasha von Imhof. None have filed with the Alaska Division of Elections.

November general election

Following the primary, it will be a race to the Nov. 3 general election.

In addition to the presidential and statewide races, some legislative races are garnering early interest. In Anchorage, Democratic candidate Liz Snyder has announced she will run again for House District 27. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt, hasn’t registered for re-election yet and defeated Snyder by fewer than 200 votes in 2018.

In South Anchorage, Democrats are targeting the state Senate seat newly filled by Sen. Josh Revak following the death of Sen. Chris Birch, and they’re expected to challenge the House seat vacated by Revak and now filled by newly minted Republican Rep. Mel Gillis.

Gillis’ House District 25 voted for Democrat Mark Begich for governor and Galvin for U.S. House in the 2018 election, and Senate District M as a whole was nearly evenly split between Dunleavy and Begich.

Fairbanks’ House District 1, which was decided by a single vote in 2018, may be a wild card. Republican Rep. Bart LeBon subsequently joined the coalition House majority, giving Democrats less reason to launch a significant challenge against him.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a news conference in Anchorage on Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)

Recall campaign

But the biggest wild card will be the recall campaign against Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

It isn’t clear when or if the recall will come to a vote because of an ongoing dispute over the campaign’s legality. An Anchorage Superior Court judge will hear the case Jan. 10, but regardless of the verdict, both sides in the case are prepared to appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court hears the case with the rapidity it considers ballot measures, it would issue a verdict in 2020. If it operates at normal speed, a decision might not come until 2021.

Even with a speedy verdict, recall supporters still have to gather 71,252 signatures, and that process could itself be challenged in court, depending upon the result.

If recall backers gather enough signatures and the Division of Elections confirms that everything is valid, a special election would be held 60 to 90 days later. If either the August primary or November general election fall within that window, the recall election could be held then.

If neither election falls within that window, there would be a whole new election day on the calendar.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the deadline for ballot measures to submit the appropriate number of signatures to the Alaska Division of Elections, which is 1 p.m. Jan. 21. In addition, a session lasting past the 90th day, not the 121st day, would push a ballot measure to the November election.

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