An information blitz on Alaska’s new election system is coming, even from ranked-choice resistors

FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Republican Party opposed the 2020 citizens initiative to overhaul the state’s elections, and its members and supporters gave most of the money to the unsuccessful campaign to fight it.

The initiative sharply reduced the influence of Alaska’s political parties, whose voters previously had more power to choose their preferred candidates through partisan primary elections, and the state GOP, at its convention last week, approved a resolution calling for the measure’s revocation.

But since the Alaska Constitution bars a repeal for two years after an initiative’s passage, Republicans also had a message for convention-goers in the meantime: “Rank the red.”

The informal campaign, which is getting a boost from the Republican National Committee and the group that originally pushed the 2020 initiative, was unveiled at a training session attended by more than 150 convention participants.

The goal was making sure those turned off by the new voting system still fully participate, said Sarah Erkmann Ward, a GOP strategy consultant who’s been hired by Alaskans for Better Elections, the group behind the 2020 initiative.

“We can’t be the ostrich putting our heads in the sand and ignoring reality, because that’s a surefire way to lose elections,” Ward said in an interview Saturday. “There is some definite recognition that we better learn how to work with the system and be able to explain it — not just understand it, but talk about it.”

The Fairbanks training was part of an informational blitz on Alaska’s new voting system that’s now rolling out from parties and other interest groups in advance of this year’s elections. Those elections include a regular primary and general, plus a hastily scheduled special primary and special general election to replace U.S. Rep. Don Young, who died suddenly last month.


[Palin, Begich, other U.S. House candidates trade barbs at Alaska GOP convention]

Alaska Democrats are running their own voter education program, with digital and mail messaging stressing the “choose one” nature of the primary and that voters can rank up to four candidates in the general election.

The party, with help from a grant from the Democratic National Committee, is also close to announcing a new organizing director who will help do voter outreach and education across the state.

“We believe the higher the turnout and the more educated the population, the better for democracy, and the better for all Alaskans,” executive director Lindsay Kavanaugh said in a prepared statement.

The state Division of Elections will run a campaign as well, with TV, social media, radio and print ads debuting Monday.

And Alaskans for Better Elections is launching a $150,000 May ad campaign in advance of the June 11 special election, reminding voters that in the open primary, they will “just pick one” candidate out of 48 on the ballot.

The elections group, which raised millions for its 2020 campaign from wealthy Outside reformers, has a $2 million budget this year and three full-time staff, said executive director Jason Grenn. The group has been crisscrossing the state to keep voters informed about the new election system, with recent and planned trips to the Kenai Peninsula, Juneau, Fairbanks, Petersburg and Kodiak, he added.

“We’re a nonpartisan, inclusive group that really is focused on making sure everyone, regardless of their political leanings, knows how to fill out the ballot correctly,” said Grenn, a former independent state legislator. The more Alaskans are satisfied with the process, he added, “that obviously helps to protect keeping the system in place.”

Until this year, Alaska’s political parties held their own primary elections, with only one winner advancing to an open general election where the candidate with the most votes was declared the winner.

The 2020 initiative replaced the partisan primary system with an open one, where all candidates appear on one ballot. Voters pick one, and the four candidates with the most votes advance.

In the general election, voters can rank as few as one and as many as all four candidates in their order of preference.

If no candidate gets more than half of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their supporters’ second-choice votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. That process repeats until a candidate wins a majority.

Republican leaders have blasted the system as overly complicated and say a 2023 repeal campaign could be on the table.

“It’s a disaster,” Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said in an interview Saturday. “I’m just one of many voices. But I will do what I can do go back to a system that’s far more understandable.”

[Voter registration deadline for special U.S. House election is May 12]

But until that happens, GOP leaders interviewed at last week’s convention said they understand they need to make the most of the existing system. That’s where the “rank the red” campaign comes in.

The idea is making sure Republican voters maximize their leverage in the new system, and that convention participants are informed enough to spread the word to other conservatives.


The message is that Republicans can, and likely should, rank more than one candidate in the general elections — because ranking just one means that their vote won’t factor into the final results if their top choice is eliminated in the first count.

“You’ve now become a spectator,” Ward said, adding that such an idea is “horrifying” for the political die-hards attending the GOP convention. She added: “Rank the Republicans, in order of preference — vote for your favorite candidate first, and then just keep going until you can’t go any farther.”

The state elections division has its own campaigns planned for the special and regular elections, without a partisan focus. So far, it has spent some $400,000 on voter education for the special primary, though that figure will rise to cover mailers, and $385,000 more is budgeted for the regular election, said spokeswoman Tiffany Montemayor.

The division is trying to make sure voters know there’s just one primary ballot this year, as opposed to previously, when there were separate ballots for certain political parties, Montemayor said.

The division is also trying to address questions it’s heard from Alaskans about ranked choice voting. Yes, you can rank your favorite candidate more than once — but your vote will only be counted for them once. And if you skip ranking a candidate second, for example, your third choice becomes your second choice, Montemayor said.

Alaskans for Better Elections, meanwhile, has placed a little extra focus on conservatives in its education campaign, given their general opposition to the new voting system, said Grenn, the group’s director.

But the group is also working with an array of other organizations, from the AARP to the Alaska Municipal League to Get Out the Native Vote, he added.

“Every sort of group that has some sort of network, we are working with them to make sure the people they talk to know how to fill out the ballot,” Grenn said. “If the speed limit on Minnesota Drive was changing, we’re putting up the new speed limit signs. You can love it, you can hate it. We just want you to know about it — and you can make the decision from there.”

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

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com