National election-reform advocates look to Alaska

WASHINGTON — After Alaska’s special U.S. House election this year, opinion pieces about the state’s new election system began to appear in local news outlets around the country.

“Look North To Alaska To Improve Hawaii Elections,” wrote the politics and opinion editor of Honolulu Civil Beat.

“Alaska’s instant run-off election system is democracy in action, could work well in Arizona,” said an election reform activist in the Arizona Capitol Times.

“Colorado should follow Alaska’s electoral lead,” argued a columnist for the Colorado Sun.

The headlines reflect a broader effort by advocates to turn Alaska’s nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting from the exception to the norm.

The special election to replace longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young after he died was Alaska’s first exercise in ranked choice voting, and voters elected a surprise pick: a moderate Democrat. The winner, Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, was a lesser known political figure compared to one of her Republican opponents, former Gov. Sarah Palin. Political observers say Alaska’s new election system played a significant role in Peltola’s victory.

[2022 Alaska voter guide]


Local advocates in states like Nevada are keeping Alaska’s 2020 effort to change the state’s election system in mind. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed national groups are throwing resources behind election reform campaigns.

Alaska voters will use ranked choice voting again Nov. 8 to decide races for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the state Legislature.

“I think Alaskans are sort of unaware of how big a microscope is on us nationwide,” said attorney Scott Kendall, who described himself as the primary author of Alaska’s ballot initiative.

A ‘crusade’

Alaska voters narrowly approved an overhaul of the state’s election system in 2020 with 50.55% support. Though other localities and states like Maine use ranked choice voting, Alaska is the first state to implement a combination of nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting in the general election.

National advocates of ranked choice voting, like the group FairVote, have noticed growing local interest.

“We’ve seen increased attention and enthusiasm for ranked choice voting since it went so smoothly in Alaska,” said FairVote research director Deb Otis. “A lot of local organizers want to bring this to their own cities or counties.”

Both before and after Peltola’s August win, opponents of Alaska’s new voting system decried it as overly confusing. And once the Alaska Division of Elections finalized the special election results, Palin called the voting method “cockamamie” and national Republicans, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, railed against the system.

Kendall, who has worked as chief of staff for independent former Gov. Bill Walker and on Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s campaign, said from his perspective, national enthusiasm “has only gone up” after the special election. He said people from the Lower 48 have reached out with questions about launching their own voting reform campaigns.

Asked where the interested groups come from, Kendall said, “it’s almost a question of where are people not from.” He said he’s had conversations with people from Wisconsin, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada.

[Republican U.S. House candidates in Alaska continue to attack each other while urging voters to ‘rank the red’]

Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, which advocated for Alaska’s voting reform, pointed to polling data that said that 85% of voters reported the ranking process was “simple.”

But Grenn said the change might not be as well received in states with a smaller demographic of nonaligned voters. An Alaska-like ballot initiative in Massachusetts failed in 2020 and a similar effort didn’t get off the ground in Missouri.

“It works well for Alaska, that doesn’t necessarily mean that works in every state as well as it works here,” Grenn said. “But it’s worth looking into.”

In 2021, 32 cities used some form of ranked choice voting, and this November, 10 jurisdictions around the country will vote on whether to implement some form of the election system, according to FairVote.

“Ranked choice voting is the fastest-growing (election) reform in the country right now,” Otis said.

National voting reform organizations have poured millions into election restructuring efforts like Alaska’s.

Katherine Gehl, the former CEO of food manufacturing company Gehl Foods, is one such advocate. Gehl co-wrote a 2017 paper for a Harvard Business School publication calling for states to eliminate the party primary and use ranked choice voting in general elections, and she has been backing voting reform since. She has contributed upwards of $6 million to support Nevada’s ballot measure, and has donated significant sums to election reform groups like Unite America that helped bankroll Alaska’s initiative.


Gehl said her goal is to have five states establish an election system like Alaska’s by 2025.

“I’m on a crusade,” she said.

Gehl said Alaska’s special election might give some onlookers pause because the first time Alaskans used the new voting method — which she calls a final-five style system — they flipped a historically Republican district.

“It’s a bit of an anomaly probably that a Democrat won in the one example we have so far,” Gehl said. “I think in some ways, that’s been confusing to people and it makes them think that final-five voting has some party preference built into it, which it absolutely doesn’t.”

An effort in Nevada

Nevada could be the next state to implement an Alaska-like voting system.

Local organizers have been pushing for election reform for years, and in early 2022 got an over $1 million cash infusion from Gehl. The initiative acquired the necessary 140,777 signatures and weathered a legal challenge, and Nevadans in November will vote on whether to implement top-five, nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting.

Doug Goodman, a local activist and president of Nevadans for Election Reform, said he followed Alaska’s special election closely because the outcome could affect support for Nevada’s ballot initiative.

“We knew what happened in Alaska was going to set the stage for Nevada,” he said.


[Alaskans need 84 cents of postage on by-mail ballots, and other how-to-vote tips]

But the political dynamics in Nevada are different from Alaska’s.

The election reform movement in Nevada has backing from the state realtors association and gambling companies. Nevada attorney Todd Bice, who represents several of the state’s largest gaming companies, leads Nevada Voters First, the political action committee sponsoring the ballot initiative. The PAC raised $19,439,000 as of Sept. 30. The funds come almost entirely from wealthy national donors like Gehl.

On the other side, top Democrats are fighting the initiative in Nevada, where the governor’s office, the state Legislature, U.S. Senate seats and three of four U.S. House seats are blue. Gov. Steve Sisolak and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who are facing tough reelection races this year, have criticized the ballot measure. The opposition’s PAC has raised just $1,575,000.

Many state progressive organizations are also opposed. In an October webinar, Emily Persaud-Zamora, executive director of the progressive group Silver State Voices, said that the proposed electoral system would confuse voters and exacerbate racial disparities in voting, citing language barriers and a lack of educational voting resources for communities of color.

“Passing ranked choice voting would just be another way of confusing Nevada voters and making sure that they don’t turn out to vote,” Persaud-Zamora said.

In response, Goodman tells skeptics that Alaskans like it: “They find it easy. They want to keep it,” he said.

As of May, 29% of Nevada voters registered as nonaligned. Mike Draper, communications director for Nevada Voters First, said the proposed election reform would encourage nonaligned Nevadans to vote.

“Nevada voters feel like oftentimes they’re voting for the lesser of two evils,” he said. “Nevada voters feel like their elected officials don’t represent them and that their voices don’t matter.”

An August Suffolk University poll found 51.6% of respondents supported the ballot measure.

However, the road to election reform in Nevada is a long one. Nevada’s voting reform initiative would change the state constitution and must pass in 2022 and 2024 before implementation in 2026.

Though state leaders of the election reform movement say they have tried to keep their campaign Nevada-focused, local activist Sondra Cosgrove, the executive director of Vote Nevada, said Alaska’s special election helped prove Nevadans could vote to implement a similar system.


“Things that we said theoretically we thought could happen in Nevada, Alaska is now a model saying it did happen,” said Cosgrove.

Kendall said he doesn’t know if Alaska’s system will take hold nationally. He said in 10 years, it “could be an afterthought.” He hopes that’s not the case, though. He’s optimistic a handful of states will eventually adopt Alaska’s system.

“Alaskans in their nonpartisan, sort of Alaska-first way are sort of leading the country by showing people what’s possible,” Kendall said. “If you asked people three or four years ago, ‘Could a change like this even be possible at a state level?’ People might laugh.”

“Yet here we are on the cusp of our election, and at the same time seeing six or eight other states looking at it,” he said.

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Reporter Riley Rogerson is a full-time reporter for the ADN based in Washington, D.C. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

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Riley Rogerson

Riley Rogerson is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C., and is a fellow with Report for America. Contact her at rrogerson@adn.com.