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Alaskans have approved ranked-choice voting. Now what?

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published 6 days ago

Absentee ballots being scanned for tabulation at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

On Wednesday, the director of the Alaska Division of Elections is scheduled to certify the results of this year’s election. When she signs her name, officially declaring that Ballot Measure 2 has become law, it will end almost two years of work and nearly $7 million of effort by campaigners.

Only Maine has passed a similar ballot measure, and if that state’s experience is a preview, Alaska’s work is just beginning.

“Winning ranked-choice voting was the easiest part. Defending, protecting it was the most challenging part,” said Maine Rep.-elect Kyle Bailey, who since 2016 has directed multiple successful election campaigns in support of ranked-choice voting.

Ballot Measure 2 requires Alaska’s election system to be entirely rewritten within two years.

Instead of two primary elections — one for Republicans and another for everyone else — all candidates for an office will be put into a single election. The top four vote-getters from that election, regardless of political party, will advance to the general election. In November, voters will rank those four candidates, picking one as their first choice, another as their second, and so on down the list.

Ballot Measure 2′s “dark money” provision, which requires additional disclosure for some campaign donations, was advertised heavily by proponents during the election campaign but will be relatively simple. The other changes will not be.

Experts, based on Maine’s experience, say Alaskans should expect five kinds of action in the next two years:

• The Alaska Division of Elections now needs to write regulations to implement the law.

• Opponents and supporters expect lawsuits will challenge the law in court.

• Education and marketing campaigns will teach voters and candidates how the new system works.

• State lawmakers cannot repeal the measure in the next two years, but they could try to modify it in legislation.

• Will the prospect of a new system change actions right now, even before the 2022 election?

‘We very much went through that’

“Our story, as you talk about the possibilities that you contemplate, we very much went through that,” said Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Dunlap, appointed by Maine’s Legislature, has supervised Maine’s elections since 2013. He also served in the office from 2005 to 2010.

Four years ago, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative that required ranked-choice voting in races for U.S. Senate, U.S. Representative, governor and state legislature. Maine’s measure was written much more vaguely than Alaska’s. It didn’t include a “top-four” primary system or restrictions on “dark money,” as Alaska’s measure does.

Almost immediately, the Maine Legislature obtained a legal opinion that the measure was unconstitutional. It passed legislation to delay — and potentially repeal — the measure.

That can’t happen here. Article XI, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution says, “An initiated law becomes effective ninety days after certification, is not subject to veto, and may not be repealed by the legislature within two years of its effective date. It may be amended at any time.”

“I think that is a strength that Alaska has, that it has that protection in place for what voters have weighed in on,” Bailey said.

Alaska lawmakers could change the proposal, but recent history shows even uncontroversial changes are difficult. In 2016, voters approved a measure that automatically registers Permanent Fund Dividend recipients to vote. The following year, the Division of Elections — with the support of then-Gov. Bill Walker — suggested a technical change that would save $200,000 per year. The bill never passed.

In 2014, voters raised the minimum wage, added environmental protections to Bristol Bay, and legalized recreational marijuana. The Legislature struggled to pass a bill creating the Marijuana Control Board and needed two years to create laws that allowed towns and boroughs to opt out of legal marijuana, even though similar laws already existed for alcohol.

It isn’t clear what, if any, legislative changes might be wanted or needed by elections officials here. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer is the elected official in charge of the state’s elections, and his chief of staff, Josh Applebee, said they have given “no” thought to how the state might implement Ballot Measure 2.

“We were focused on completing the primary and general elections,” Applebee said, and Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections, said that agency has likewise been focused on this year’s elections.

Applebee speculated that it could be a “9-12 month process” to draft regulations that implement the measure, rewrite ballots and get new procedures in place.

“That seems similar to Permanent Fund Dividend voter registration,” said Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a measure supporter who co-chairs an Alaska House committee that took testimony on the measure earlier this year.

‘A stack of litigation’

In Maine, ongoing lawsuits meant officials had just 100 days to prepare before the state’s June 2018 primary, Dunlap said.

Those lawsuits came from all directions and were filed soon after the measure was ratified.

“We got sued about a dozen times by everybody. We got sued by the proponents. We got sued by the opponents. We got sued by the Democrats. We got sued by the Republicans,” Dunlap said. “You could’ve hurt your knee tripping over a stack of litigation in this office. It all came down in favor of ranked-choice voting.”

In Alaska, “everyone assumes there will be litigation,” said Scott Kendall, the measure’s lead author and a chief of staff to former Gov. Bill Walker.

It’s widely expected that the Alaska Republican Party will sue. In late June, party chairman Glenn Clary told a legislative committee, “If this initiative passes, I can see the Republican Party establishing a convention primary and petitioning the courts for the freedom of association under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

This fall, the party and traditional Republican donors funded much of the campaign against the ballot measure.

Clary did not return phone calls asking whether the party intends to challenge the measure, but the party’s vice chair, Ann Brown, provided a statement by text message: “The view of the Alaska Republican Party is that one problem with one portion of the ballot measure is that it jettisons the American tradition of ‘one person, one vote.’ The ballot measure is lengthy and covers many subjects. Therefore, we are reviewing the matter carefully.”

While the Alaska Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Ballot Measure 2 could be placed on this year’s ballot, it hasn’t said whether the measure itself is legal.

In a pre-election forum held by the Alaska Law Review, former Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards examined on a clause in the Alaska Constitution that says, “The candidate receiving the greatest number of votes shall be governor.”

While Kendall thinks Ballot Measure 2 follows that clause, Richards doesn’t.

“I’m sure the Supreme Court will get to decide that one day if this passes,” he said.

Lawsuits could also come after the election. In 2018, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin sued after losing. A federal judge rejected his lawsuit, leaving Democrat Jared Goldin the winner. Goldin won reelection this year with more than 50% of the vote.

‘The races have just gotten nastier’

In addition to preparing their legal defenses, Ballot Measure 2 supporters are planning a two-year education campaign, Kendall said.

When the Division of Elections creates a new ballot, voters will need to know how to use it and candidates will need to know how to campaign.

“I think there will be a prolonged process of engagement, discussion, and that starts soon, right after the litigation phase,” said consultant Robert Dillon. He works with the Action Now Initiative, which bankrolled Ballot Measure 2 and could fund a voter-education program.

In Maine, ballots are designed with a grid to accommodate ranked-choice voting. Candidates are listed by row, and each column represents first choice, second choice, and so on.

The most common question is how to vote for just one candidate, Dunlap said. It’s still an option, and the Maine Republican Party offered an easy explanation.

Another thing worth noting, he said, is that many races won’t need ranked-choice voting. If one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, there’s no need to look at second choices. This year, all of Maine’s federal candidates got more than half the vote, which meant there was no need to look at second choices.

On election night, Dunlap looks at the unofficial results from across the state. If any race looks to finish without a candidate receiving at least 50% of the vote, ballots and digital voting machines are returned to the state capital. There, the ballots are fed into a scanner and the results are uploaded into an “Excel-like spreadsheet.” A winner is calculated quickly after that.

Alaska already has a similar return policy as part of its regular double-checking process.

Dunlap said Maine’s Legislature didn’t leave him much of a budget to teach state residents about the system, so he and his communications aide created a simple animation with a cheap online tool, then held town hall meetings across the state, driving from place to place.

“Every forum that I went to was standing room only,” he said.

It took until this year, the second election cycle under ranked-choice voting, for voters to become familiar with the system, he said, and proponents said the same thing.

But is it working?

When Maine’s measure became law, backers said it would make politics more civil by forcing elected officials toward the middle.

Mark Ellis, a former chairman of the Maine Republican Party, endorsed it for that reason.

“I was completely wrong about that,” Ellis said. “The races have just gotten nastier, particularly between the two major parties.”

Despite that, he still believes it’s a good system.

“The races where it’s applied and triggered, the person can take office knowing they have a majority, and I think that makes a difference with the way they govern,” he said.

While the first elections under Alaska’s new system won’t take place until 2022, state lawmakers have said that it has the potential to affect matters immediately. Control of the state House and Senate is undecided, and because Ballot Measure 2 eliminates party-limited primary elections, it reduces the ability of party members to punish incumbent lawmakers who compromise.

“I, at least, think that will shape political behavior in Juneau ... because people no longer need to be concerned that a very unrepresentative part of the electorate will have the opportunity to remove them from office,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

The extent to which that holds true remains to be determined.

“I think it’s exciting. It’s a brave new world for Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

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