Two months before the November election, the debate over Alaska’s election-reform ballot measure is accelerating as proponents prepare an intensive advertising campaign and both backers and detractors line up extensive lists of supporters.
If approved Nov. 3, the initiative would require more political donors to disclose the source of their money. Instead of separate primary elections for Republicans and other candidates, all candidates would be on one ballot, and the top four vote-getters regardless of party would advance to the general election. In the general election, a winner would be picked through ranked-choice voting.
With those three major changes on the table, Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats and independents can be found on both sides of the issue, depending on how much they value each component.
A collection of Outside organizations is funding the “vote yes” campaign, which has received about $2.9 million in contributions, according to campaign finance documents. Only a fraction of the campaign’s money has come from within the state, which has drawn criticism from opponents who say Outside groups are experimenting in Alaska.
More than $1 million of that money has been spent on TV and radio ads to air in the last month before the election.
The Action Now Initiative, RepresentUS and UniteAmerica, three groups funding Alaska’s “vote yes” campaign, also gave money to the group backing the Arkansas measure and the group behind the North Dakota measure. In Massachusetts, campaign filings show donations from UniteAmerica and Action Now Initiative.
The leading “vote no” group, Defend Alaska Elections, organized in late August and raised just $3,400 through Sept. 7. Mark Begich, the former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor, contributed $250 and John Sturgeon added $1,000. The remaining contributors are mostly Republicans. They include Parnell, Anchorage Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy and some members of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.
Mark Begich, now a consultant in Anchorage, has become one of the measure’s leading critics following a July opinion column in the Wall Street Journal. He co-wrote the piece with former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican. Both men criticized the ranked-choice piece of the measure. Begich’s son, Jacob, is backing the intiative, as is the former U.S. senator’s brother, Democratic state Sen. Tom Begich.
In the ranked-choice system proposed by Ballot Measure 2, voters pick candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated.
Those who preferred the eliminated candidate have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the results are recompiled. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority.
Begich and others say that favors voters who rank all of their candidates and harms voters who rank only one.
“The mathematics on it, I think, create this very unfair system,” he said.
Someone who votes for only one candidate would not be counted in the second or third round. Supporters of the measure say that’s the same as a voter who casts a blank vote for a particular race: Not voting is a choice, too.
Tom Begich isn’t enthusiastic about the ranked-choice portion of the initiative, but he likes the other two parts enough to offer his support.
He believes having one primary ballot, open to all Alaskans, encourages moderates.
“I think that partisanship has gotten out of hand,” he said.
That’s an argument supported by former Republican state Sen. Lesil McGuire of Anchorage. When she was in office, she could reliably win the general election but struggled to win her primary, when only Republicans and some independents could vote. Among Republican lawmakers, she said, there’s a constant fear that if you compromise, the state Republican Party chairman could call you up and say that the party will no longer support you.
“I think that fear runs with you as you serve, particularly in the House of Representatives,” she said during a Wednesday webcast.
Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, said some legislators may have felt that pressure, but he didn’t. Talerico, who is not running for re-election this year, was on a long list of Measure 2 opponents released Tuesday by a group opposing the proposal.
Among the other people on the list are former Democratic state Sen. Johnny Ellis of Anchorage; Chena Hot Springs owner Bernie Karl; former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell; and Mark Chryson, a former chair of the Alaskan Independence Party who sponsored a failed ranked-choice voting initiative in 2002.
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, is supporting the measure, as are Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.
Talerico said that in his view, the initiative comes down to a simple question: Is Alaska’s voting system working or not?
If it works, there’s no reason to vote yes, he said.
“I’m happy with the system that we have,” he said.