Politics

Judge hears case challenging Alaska’s new ranked-choice election system

JUNEAU — A lawsuit challenging a voter-approved initiative that would end party primaries and institute ranked-choice voting for general elections in Alaska is alleging constitutional violations but the accusations are actually policy objections, an attorney for the state argued Monday.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton Walsh said the initiative setting out the new system does not violate constitutional rights.

Political parties previously have used primaries to advance a nominee to the general election. Under the new system, the top four voter-getters in each race would advance to the general election, regardless of party.

Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller did not immediately rule Monday after hearing arguments from Paton Walsh, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the group behind the initiative.

Changes under the initiative that voters narrowly approved in November are set to take effect for next year’s elections, which will decide races for offices including U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and lieutenant governor.

The lawsuit was filed late last year by Scott Kohlhaas, who unsuccessfully ran for state House as a Libertarian; Bob Bird, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party; Bird’s party; and Anchorage attorney Kenneth P. Jacobus. In court documents, they have called the new system a “political experiment” and said the judge must decide if ranked-choice voting “negatively impacts the right of Alaskans to free political association.”

“Marginalizing political parties, as this system does, harms the right of Alaskans to free political association, and allows those with money to take control,” Jacobus argued in a recent court filing.

He said Monday that he expected the case would go to the Alaska Supreme Court.

In court documents, attorneys for the state have maintained the system set out by the initiative creates a more accessible primary and said parties remain free to endorse whomever they choose.

Paton Walsh and Thomas Flynn, another assistant attorney general, also said in court documents that ranked-choice voting does not violate constitutional rights because each voter would have the same opportunity to rank candidates.

Scott Kendall, an attorney for the group behind the initiative, said the plaintiffs in this lawsuit misunderstand how ranked-choice voting works.

Some major U.S. cities use ranked-choice voting, including New York City, and Maine uses it for federal races.

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