Politics

Alaska Supreme Court will decide legality of new ranked-choice voting system ahead of 2022 election

JUNEAU — Opponents of Alaska’s new ranked-choice election system, having lost a lawsuit in Superior Court, are now appealing to the state Supreme Court.

Alaska’s high court has accepted the appeal under an accelerated timeline that will have justices hear arguments Jan. 18. The justices are expected to issue a summary decision shortly afterward, and that decision will determine how Alaska will conduct its statewide elections in 2022.

Last year, 50.6% of participating Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 2, which significantly changes how Alaska conducts state elections.

Attorney Ken Jacobus, a Republican, is representing himself, the Alaskan Independence Party and Libertarian candidate Scott Kohlhaas in a legal effort to overturn that result, arguing that it is impossible to implement the measure in a way that follows the Alaska Constitution and U.S. Constitution.

“We’re trying to set aside the whole thing,” he said.

Defending against the suit are the state of Alaska, which is in charge of implementing the measure, and Alaskans for Better Elections, successor to the organization that campaigned in favor of the measure.

Under the new Ballot Measure 2 system, all candidates for a particular office, regardless of party, will run against one another in the August primary. (Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are paired together on a single ticket as running mates.)

Voters pick one candidate or ticket for each office, and the top four vote-getters advance to the general election in November.

In that election, voters will be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference, Nos. 1 through 4. A write-in spot offers a fifth choice.

If one candidate gets more than half of the first-choice ballots, that person wins the election.

If none of the candidates reach that mark, the candidate with the fewest first-choice ballots is eliminated. Voters who picked that candidate first will instead have their ballots go to their second choices, and the total is recounted.

If a candidate then has more than half of the votes, that person wins. If not, the process continues until there are only two candidates left, and the person with the most votes wins.

The ranked-choice system is more common internationally, but it is also used by some large American cities, including San Francisco and New York. Maine uses it for federal elections. Alaska is the second state to implement it.

Jacobus said he believes the top-four primary is a mistake and intends to argue that it restricts political parties, and because political parties are how Alaskans associate politically, it thus represents an unconstitutional restriction on the right of free association.

Under the election system used in 2020 and before, only one candidate from each party could advance from the primary to the general election. Now, multiple Republicans, multiple Democrats or multiple candidates of another party could advance.

The lawsuit is being supported by the Alaskan Independence Party, whose chairman, Bob Bird, is a plaintiff. Libertarian Scott Kohlhaas is also a plaintiff, but the Alaska Libertarian Party supports Ballot Measure 2.

Scott Kendall, who wrote much of the measure and is now defending it in court on behalf of Alaskans for Better Elections, said Ballot Measure 2 was written with the constitution in mind and will be upheld.

“Judge Miller’s decision was well-supported in the law,” he said, referring to the lower-court verdict.

“I think people saw that in the briefing, and then the argument and the order. And we certainly believe we’re gonna get the same outcome at the state Supreme Court,” he said.

In Maine, the first state to approve ranked-choice voting, there were extensive legal battles in both federal and state court before the first election under the new rules.

After that election, losing candidates challenged the result in court. Kendall said he expects that here as well.

“I expect if the system is run well and run according to the rules, that challenge will fail, because these are permissible constitutional procedures to run an election by, whether you like them or you don’t like them,” he said.

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