In 25 pages, the proposed Better Elections Initiative offers a plan to significantly change the way the state’s residents pick their politicians.
It has three separate but related parts:
• It would require groups to provide more public information about the source of the money they donate to candidates.
• It would merge the state’s two primary-election ballots into one.
• The top four vote-getters in that primary, regardless of party, would advance to a general election that uses ranked-choice voting and asks Alaskans to sort their picks from first choice to fourth.
While other places may use one component of this proposed system, no other state, city or country has all three.
The measure would take effect in 2022, and all statewide elections would be ranked-choice, including voting for president, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, the governor and the Alaska Legislature.
Presidential candidates would not go through the top-four primary.
Municipal elections are not affected. Statewide judicial retention elections would not change, nor would ballot measures, bond votes and referenda.
Opponents say it’s an experiment by wealthy Outside interests with unknown goals, and that passing the measure could install a system that amounts to trickery, disenfranchising voters.
Defend Alaska Elections, the largest opposition group, said it’s still analyzing the proposal’s text. Alaskans for Better Elections, the group supporting Ballot Measure 2, has drafted a detailed analysis of what each section does.
Based on that document, other nonpartisan analysis, interviews with opponents, supporters and attorneys, here’s how the state’s elections would change if Ballot Measure 2 passes:
Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case known as Citizens United that states and the federal government cannot limit corporate and union spending on elections, as long as that spending is not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.
In Alaska, that means big money flows each election into “independent expenditure” groups. These groups are required to disclose their donors, but if the donor is an Outside group, there’s little immediate information about the source of the money.
Ballot Measure 2 requires those Outside groups to disclose the source of all contributions above $2,000 within 24 hours.
The disclosure applies only to candidate donations, not ballot measures or referenda. It also does not apply to federal elections, including those for president, U.S. Senate or U.S. House.
The state’s campaign regulator would decide how the disclosures are made to the public by writing new regulations.
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, an opponent of Ballot Measure 2, said that if overturning Citizens United is the goal, the state should support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that fixes the problem. Disclosure, he said, doesn’t fully solve the issue.
Unified primary election
If the Better Elections initiative passes, the state’s two primary election ballots would be merged. All candidates, regardless of party, would compete against one another. The top four vote-getters would advance outright to the general election; ranked-choice voting wouldn’t apply to the primary.
While Washington state and California have a “top-two” state primary in which the top two vote-getters advance (Nebraska uses a variation of the top-two system), no state has the “top-four” idea proposed for Alaska.
Scott Kendall, the Republican attorney who formerly served as chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker, was one of the two main authors of Ballot Measure 2. He said “top two” doesn’t work in Alaska, because “in 30 out of the 40 House districts, you would have either two Republicans or two Democrats.”
Opponents say a single party could still dominate the primary.
“Under this system, it’s possible for four candidates of a single political party to win the primary, shutting out the other political parties from even appearing on the ballot,” Begich and former Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, said in the state’s official voter pamphlet.
Kendall said he doesn’t believe that will happen because Republicans or Democrats would have to spread their votes among four candidates, reducing the tally for each and making it easier for another candidate to finish in the top four.
Parties have less control
In the current primary, only Republicans and independents can vote for Republican candidates.
A separate ballot holds Democratic candidates and those from other parties, and there are no restrictions on who can use that ballot.
The initiative’s backers say that divide allows a small number of party members to determine the outcome of each primary election. This year, five incumbent Republicans lost their seats in the primary because they were viewed as being too willing to compromise. (Two others also lost.)
In one of the Republican races, only 7.5% of the district’s voters decided the winner.
“In primaries, the way the system is set up, you only have to message to and appeal to the extreme edge of the parties, left and right, and activate those to vote,” said state Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, who was one of the five who lost in the primary.
He said he’s now planning to vote in favor of the measure.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, also lost. In a column posted on a conservative blog, he said he just thinks that more people need to vote and that the system itself doesn’t need to change.
“Even though I was not selected as the Republican nominee this last primary, I support the process for Republicans to elect Republicans,” he said.
After the primary, political parties would not be allowed to withdraw one candidate in favor of another. That happened twice this year: Anchorage Assemblywoman Suzanne LaFrance replaced the Democratic primary winner in an Anchorage House race, and former Palmer Mayor Jim Cooper replaced the Democratic winner for a Chugiak/Eagle River state Senate seat.
If a candidate withdraws after the primary — either because of illness or simple lack of interest — the primary’s fifth-place finisher would take the slot. If there isn’t a fifth candidate, the spot goes unfilled.
Candidates must go through the primary: The measure would repeal the laws allowing an Alaskan to enter the general election directly by gathering signatures. Write-in candidates are still allowed.
Governor’s race changes
The change in the primary election means changing the way Alaskans pick their governor.
Under the existing system, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary election. The winning candidates from each primary are then joined together for the general election, in a governor-lieutenant governor pairing from each party.
The Alaska Constitution says a governor and lieutenant governor must run together in the general election.
To abide by that provision, Ballot Measure 2 would require each governor and lieutenant governor candidate to create a joint ticket before entering the primary election. Alaskans would vote on those governor-lieutenant governor pairings in the primary and the general election.
“We think that’s a feature, not a bug,” Kendall said.
Brett Huber, a former senior aide to Gov. Mike Dunleavy who is now in charge of the biggest “vote-no” group, said it seems strange that a ballot measure intended to increase voters' options would take away options here.
Ranked-choice general election
If Ballot Measure 2 becomes law, the winners of the primary election (and any write-ins) will compete in a ranked-choice election.
Maine uses ranked-choice voting for its general elections, but it doesn’t use a top-four primary election. Internationally, Ireland and Australia use ranked-choice voting for their equivalent of Alaska’s general elections, but they have no equivalent of the proposed primary.
In Alaska’s system, voters would rank the candidates by preference, one through four (or more). Sample ballots for Portland, Maine’s city council race show how it might work: Next to each candidate are four ovals, each indicating whether that candidate is a person’s first, second, third or fourth choice.
If a candidate gets more than half the first-choice votes, the election is over and that person wins.
If no one gets more than half the votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes of everyone who voted for that person instead go to their second choice.
That process continues until someone has more than half of the remaining votes.
Kendall said having only four candidates makes it easier to rank. Other ranked-choice systems have put 20 or more candidates into a single race, he said, making it difficult for voters.
Opponents say the system breaks down when voters don’t rank all the candidates on the ballot. If enough people vote for only three out of four candidates, leaving the fourth option blank, it’s possible to have a winner with less than 50% of the vote.
“A voter who only picks the candidate of their choice, and declines to rank others, could find their ballot excluded from the final vote count. It’s as though the voter didn’t show up for the election,” Begich and Parnell said.
Kendall sees things differently, he said. Choosing to not vote for a fourth (or third, or second) choice is the same as not voting in a particular election on the ballot. Alaskans can already do that, and in elections where there are more than two candidates, it’s easily possible to have a winner with less than half the vote.
Endorsements, not party picks
In this system, candidates would be listed on the general election based on their voter registration, not a political party endorsement. This year, for example, two registered Republicans are running for House District 30 on the Kenai, but only one is listed as a Republican because he won the Republican primary.
Leighan Gonzalez, a registered Democratic voter who leads a small Ballot Measure 2 opposition group, said that means a candidate could switch parties at the last minute to have a preferred label.
Glenn Clary, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said earlier this year that the provision could make political parties “extinct.”
Kendall said parties can still pick a preferred candidate and advertise them as the official candidate. In a 2018 state House race in Anchorage, the Alaska Democratic Party advertised for independent Jason Grenn and against Democratic candidate Dustin Darden.
Election boards also change
Current state law uses election results to determine the makeup of state election boards and the board of the state’s campaign finance regulator, the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
Because of changes to the primary and general elections, Ballot Measure 2 says the makeup of those boards will instead be based on the state’s largest political parties by number of registered voters, not whose candidates performed best in the governor election.
Lawsuits could change the result
Republican chairman Clary told state lawmakers in June that if the measure becomes law, his party could file a lawsuit. If the issue goes to the state courts, judges could strike down parts or all of the measure.
After voters in Maine approved ranked-choice voting in 2016, that state’s Legislature passed a bill delaying implementation. Mainers overturned that law in a 2018 vote, holding their first ranked-choice elections that year.
The state’s Republican Party filed several unsuccessful lawsuits challenging both ranked-choice voting and the results of a 2018 vote conducted by the process.
After those legal cases were resolved, the Maine Legislature voted in 2019 to expand ranked-choice voting to cover its presidential and federal races. The state’s Republican Party challenged that expansion as well but lost, and a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected this month.