Politics

Judge to hear case challenging ranked-choice election initiative approved by Alaska voters

JUNEAU — A state judge is scheduled to hear arguments Monday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a voter-approved initiative that would end party primaries in Alaska and institute ranked-choice voting in general elections.

Scott Kohlhaas, who unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat last year as a Libertarian; Bob Bird, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party; Bird’s party; and Anchorage attorney Kenneth P. Jacobus sued in December, shortly after the initiative was approved.

In court documents, they say people “exercise their right of free political association by forming political parties for the purpose of electing candidates” and advancing issues and principles. They call the new voter-approved system a “political experiment” and say it was designed in a way to harm political parties.

They cite concerns that candidates for minor parties, like the Alaskan Independence Party, could get “lost in the shuffle,” in a primary where all candidates are listed on one ballot and the top four vote-getters advance to the general election. They allege in court documents that ranked-choice voting imposes “an unconstitutional burden on the voter’s right to make a knowledgeable choice,” saying voters will make choices not knowing which candidates might be eliminated.

Attorneys for the state Department of Law in court documents say the plaintiffs’ opposition includes a mix of policy arguments and speculation. They say the claims raised by the plaintiffs do not affect constitutional rights or otherwise fail because they “rest on a misunderstanding” of what the initiative does, court filings by Assistant Attorneys General Margaret Paton Walsh and Thomas Flynn state.

[Ranked-choice voting, approved in Alaska and Maine, gets a look nationwide]

They say ranked-choice voting effectively asks voters to answer a series of questions about their preferences at once. Ranked-choice voting lets voters “express their true preferences without the need for strategic voting, reducing the danger that a least-favored candidate will prevail,” the state attorneys wrote.

Attorneys for the state also said the initiative creates a “more accessible” system under an open primary.

While only the top four vote-getters advance to the general election, independent candidates and minor political parties won’t have to expend as much effort to file for the primary, state attorneys wrote in court documents.

If allowed to stand, the new election system will be in place for next year’s elections, which will feature races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the offices of governor and lieutenant governor.

The state Division of Elections has a section on its website aimed at explaining the process set out by the initiative.

Voter registration statistics for Alaska show that of nearly 594,420 total registered voters, approximately 144,600 are registered Republicans, 79,210 are registered Democrats and about 18,940 are registered members of the Alaskan Independence Party. About 340,620 voters in Alaska are not affiliated with any party and are registered as nonpartisan or undeclared, according to the statistics.

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