Politics

Alaska’s first ranked-choice election will be a special vote to replace Rep. Don Young

Don Young

The new election system approved by Alaska voters in 2020 will get an unexpected first test this summer with a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Congressman Don Young, Alaska’s sole member in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Alaskans will pick a temporary replacement for Young using a top-four special primary election and a special ranked-choice general election. The prospect is adding a historic extra dimension to what was already expected to be a major year in Alaska politics.

Alaska hasn’t had a statewide special election since 2007, and it hasn’t had a special election for a Congressional seat since 1973. Young won that election and served in the House until his death.

Now, Alaskans must wait for Gov. Mike Dunleavy to proclaim the dates of the special elections to replace Young. That proclamation also will determine the candidate filing deadline. Whoever wins the special election will serve until a permanent replacement, chosen in the November general election, is seated.

While the dates aren’t certain, it is certain that the special elections will provide an early preview of the state’s new election system.

“A new system has a lot of questions, and now we get to try out that system when it’s only one race versus 65 races,” said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, the group that supported 2020′s Ballot Measure 2 and is now devoted to educating Alaskans about the system that ballot measure installed.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure Alaskans are ready,” he said.

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State law requires a special primary election and a special general election if one of Alaska’s U.S. Senate or U.S. House seats become vacant. The governor does not appoint a replacement.

Candidates for office will have to register with the Alaska Division of Elections. Registration information was not yet available Saturday morning. If candidates want to raise money, they also will need to register with the Federal Elections Commission. The deadline to register will depend upon the date of the primary election.

The primary takes place between 60 and 90 days after the vacancy. In this case, that’s sometime between May 17 and June 16, with the exact date determined by Dunleavy.

“The law, as recently revised by initiative, requires a special primary election and a special regular election,” said Jeff Turner, the governor’s deputy director of communications. He confirmed the top-4 primary and ranked-choice general election but did not provide a date and said no further information was available.

Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections, said Friday night that officials are working with the Alaska Department of Law to provide precise information.

[VIDEO: What is ranked-choice voting, and how does it work in Alaska?]

According to the text of state law, the regular election would take place on the first Tuesday at least 60 days after the primary. If that Tuesday is a holiday, it goes to the next Tuesday.

If the primary were to take place June 16, the special general election would be Aug. 16. This year, that’s the same date as the regular statewide primary election.

State law says “all provisions” of the special elections are the same as those for a regular primary and general election. That means all candidates, regardless of party, will appear together on the same primary-election ballot. Each voter will vote for one candidate. The four candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the special general election.

In that vote, Alaskans will be asked to rank their four choices in order of preference, from first through fourth. (There’s also a space for a fifth, write-in, option.)

If one candidate is the first choice of more than half of voters, they win. If not, the candidate who has the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who picked that candidate will instead have their votes go to their second choice.

The votes are tallied again, and if someone has more than half the votes, they win. If not, the next-lowest finisher is eliminated, their votes are redistributed, and the winner is the person with the most votes.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

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