Politics

Alaska Supreme Court explains ruling that says ranked choice voting, open primaries are constitutional

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The Alaska Supreme Court issued a full opinion Friday explaining why it upheld the state’s new ranked choice voting and open primary system as constitutional in January.

The five justices issued a brief order at the time in favor of the new system that was narrowly approved by voters in a 2020 ballot measure. It was issued quickly to confirm to the Alaska Division of Elections that the new voting system would be used this year.

Alaska is the second state after Maine to implement ranked choice voting, in which voters are asked to rank four candidates — and a write-in option — in order of preference. And it is the first state to couple that with an open primary system.

Republican Kenneth Jacobus, a longtime Alaska attorney, appeared on behalf of himself, Libertarian legislative candidate Scott Kohlhaas and Bob Bird, head of the Alaskan Independence Party, to challenge the new system.

Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former state Rep. Dick Randolph each submitted documents in support of Jacobus. They argued ranked choice voting violated a constitutional provision that “the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes shall be governor,” partly because after multiple rounds of counting, the winner may not have gotten the most first-choice votes.

The justices rejected their arguments. The ranked-choice tabulation process is used if no candidate gets more than half the first-choice votes. In that situation, the last-place candidate is then eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the other candidates based on their supporters’ second-choice votes. That process is repeated until one candidate has a clear majority.

In their 57-page opinion, the justices said that the tabulation process would still result in a gubernatorial candidate winning with the greatest number of votes — unless in the unlikely result of a tie — and that “there is no question that a ranked-choice vote is a single vote.”

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They also rejected arguments that an open primary burdens political parties’ right to choose their own candidates. Instead, it merely narrows the field of candidates by allowing the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, to advance to the general election, they said.

Candidates for lieutenant governor and governor now run as a joint ticket. The plaintiffs argued that violates the constitution’s requirement that the lieutenant governor be elected in “the same manner” as the governor, meaning voters should get to cast a ballot for them separately in the primary. But that was also rejected, with the justices writing that voters would still have their say on candidates for lieutenant governor through the nonpartisan primary process.

Jacobus argued political parties would be weakened because candidates can appear on the ballot with their party registration, which could imply they had been endorsed by the party. The court said instructions on the ballot made clear that a candidate’s affiliation does not necessarily equal an endorsement, and Alaskans would have enough common sense to tell the difference.

Political observers have noted that moderate candidates seem to have benefited from the new open primary system used in August, which allowed voters of any political persuasion to cast a ballot for any candidate they wanted. U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat, also won the special U.S. House race — Alaska’s first election to use ranked choice voting — defeating two Republicans, former Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich III.

Since then, several Republican legislative candidates have spoken publicly in opposition to the new ranked choice voting system during the lead-up to this year’s election. They’ve pledged to try to repeal it if they are elected.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Outside money has been donated to independent expenditure groups, Alaska’s version of super PACs, to boost legislative candidates who are seen as supportive of the new voting system, open primaries and automatic voter registration. Independent former Gov. Bill Walker has received funding from the same sources.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy indicated his personal opposition to ranked choice voting at a gubernatorial forum earlier in the month. He sidestepped that question during a televised debate Wednesday, but said voters had supported the system and that needed to be respected.

“And we’ll do an evaluation after that,” he said about the Nov. 8 general election. “And we’ll see how this new voting process works.”

Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, a second Republican candidate for governor, spoke in opposition to the new voting system during Wednesday’s debate, while Walker and Democratic former state legislator Les Gara spoke in support of it.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at smaguire@adn.com.

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