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Politics

A push for election reform in Alaska scrambles party lines on Ballot Measure 2

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: October 29
  • Published October 29

The new 2020 "I Voted" stickers at the State Division of Elections office in Anchorage on Oct. 13, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

At last week’s Anchorage Chamber of Commerce election forum, a moderator asked 10 state Senate candidates if they intend to vote for Ballot Measure 2.

Four candidates — all independents — raised their hands. All of the Republicans and Democrats kept their hands down.

If approved by voters, Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative — better known as Ballot Measure 2 — would merge the state’s two primary election ballots into one, and the top four vote-getters would advance to a general election where Alaskans would be asked to rank them, one through four.

The purpose, backers say, is to create “a better way to elect candidates who will represent the will of the people.”

Alaska’s independents, who account for 57% of the state’s registered voters but only three of the 60 seats in the Alaska Legislature, like the idea. They say they are shut out of a political system that caters to Democrats and Republicans.

“Our Legislature right now doesn’t look very similar to our electorate,” said Pat Race, a Juneau artist and registered independent who supports the measure.

On Wednesday night, many supporters held an online pep rally. From Cordova, Kat Moore opened the event with a rendition of the “Alaska Flag Song,” then spun into a jaunty song that featured lyrics expressing her frustration.

“Don’t brush me off like I’m a crumb,” one verse said.

Moore said Ballot Measure 2 would force political parties to compete for the votes of independent Alaskans. With four candidates guaranteed slots in the general election, voters would have a variety of choices, she said.

“By supporting ranked-choice voting I believe we’ll have better representation that reflects Alaskan constituents' needs,” she said.

In Anchorage, Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, has been campaigning door to door and asking constituents what they think of the measure.

“The pattern I would say is that people who are registered (undeclared) and (nonpartisan) tend to be pretty supportive of Ballot Measure 2," he said.

"Folks who identify with one party or the other are much more likely to be opposed,” he said.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he will vote against the measure, as have Reps. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau. Those two lawmakers represent the most Democratic-leaning districts in the state.

“Maybe it’s going to work out great. I like the concept of supporting moderation and bipartisanship, but I don’t know if this is the right way to get there,” Fields said.

“It just seems to make sense to me to fix things first before burning it all down,” said Dave Reeves, business manager of IBEW Local 1547, which is contributing to the vote-no cause.

Race disagreed with the assertion that Ballot Measure 2 would “burn down” the existing political system.

“I think it’s a reasonable system that allows people to give more nuance to their choice,” he said. “It’s definitely a different flavor of things, but that doesn’t mean it’s so scary and new that people should run away from it.”

[Above: A video supporting Ballot Measure 2 created by Pat Race of Juneau.]

Maine is the only state that uses ranked-choice voting at a statewide level. No state has a top-four primary election like Ballot Measure 2 proposes.

“I think people are just so disgusted with our current political system that they’re willing to give anything a try,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant who is not involved with Ballot Measure 2.

Disgust is particularly high among younger Alaskans, who are far more likely to be registered independents.

“At least from my perspective, I think it’s a generational issue. A lot of young people like me haven’t known anything other than partisan gridlock and it’s getting tiring," said Jacob Begich, the son of former Anchorage Mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

Jacob Begich is supporting Ballot Measure 2. His father is one of its most prominent opponents.

Some Democrats say they oppose ranked-choice voting because they believe Democratic candidates would be quickly eliminated in statewide races. The models in their mind is the 2010 U.S. Senate race, when incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski defeated Republican nominee Joe Miller and Democratic candidate Scott McAdams by attracting Democrats and independents.

[Above: A video opposing Ballot Measure 2 from the group Protect My Ballot.]

Murkowski faces reelection in 2022, and some Democrats believe ranked-choice voting is the only way she can win again. They scornfully refer to Ballot Measure 2 as the “Lisa Law.”

“Democrats in Alaska are not going to win. We’re just going to move farther and farther to the right,” said Leighan Gonzales, a registered Democratic voter who created a small progressive group to oppose the measure.

Officially, the Alaska Democratic Party has no position on Ballot Measure 2. Trade unions are split on the issue, which means the politically powerful AFL-CIO isn’t getting involved either.

Meanwhile, the state’s Republican Party approved a resolution that “unequivocally opposes the passage of the ‘Better Elections’ ballot initiative” and has donated $50,000 to the main vote-no group.

Glenn Clary, the party’s chairman, said in late June that if the measure becomes law, “political parties will become extinct” because the new election system would allow multiple candidates from the same party to participate in the general election.

While the party would still be able to choose a preferred Republican, it wouldn’t be able to stop multiple Republicans from appearing on the general election ballot.

Currently, the Republican Party writes the rules for its own primary election, permitting only independents and Republicans to participate. Under the Ballot Measure 2 system, all candidates would be on the same primary ballot.

Andrew Halcro, an Anchorage Republican who finished third in the 2006 governor’s election, says that change is a good thing. Right now, he says, Alaskans have their choices artificially constrained by party bosses and large campaign donors.

“The ability of the public to make a decision has now been so weighted against (them),” he said.

With both of the state’s main parties unwilling to help, the supporters of Ballot Measure 2 have turned to a collection of Outside election-reform groups for funding:

Unite America, which bills itself “a movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to put voters first by fostering a more representative and functional government,” has given $3.37 million in 2019 and 2020. Federal campaign disclosures indicate its biggest contributor is Kathryn Murdoch, a politically moderate member of the family that founded Fox News.

• The Action Now Initiative, created by billionaire Texans John and Laura Arnold, has contributed $2.96 million in 2019 and 2020.

• The Unite and Renew Fund, funded by California investor and former Amazon.com vice president Harrison Miller, has given $300,000.

Detractors say the groups are using Alaska as an experiment. Katherine Gehl, one of the Outside supporters, told Commonwealth North in August that Alaska could be an example for other states.

“One thing message-wise Alaskans don’t like is to be told what to do by Outsiders,” said Marc Hellenthal, owner of Hellenthal and Associates, a firm hired to run ads against Ballot Measure 2.

The measure was almost entirely written by Scott Kendall, the Republican attorney who formerly served as chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker, and Elizabeth Bakalar, the Juneau attorney suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy over her firing as the state’s lead expert on elections matters.

They used the text of never-passed state legislation and advice from people inside and outside the state, each said. Some definitions and terminology were copied from model legislation written elsewhere.

Robert Dillon, a former staffer for U.S. Sen Lisa Murkowski, now advises the Action Now Initiative.

“There is no quid pro quo. There is no ‘ask.’ These are grants to support a grassroots effort,” he said of the spending. "The interest that the Arnolds and that the other funders have is making democracy work better.”

The Arnolds and the other groups involved in Ballot Measure 2 are involved in other states, too. Campaign finance disclosures in Massachusetts, Arkansas and North Dakota show similar efforts there.

“For us, we’ve got a group of Alaskans who are doing a grassroots effort, and they’ve got to get money from somewhere,” Dillon said.

As for motivations, “This is all about how we can make the vote matter more, how we can give Americans a choice, and how we can hold candidates accountable," he said. "The only place we can do that is the ballot box.”

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