As they’ve done before, Alaska voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the once-in-a-decade call for a convention to rewrite the state’s founding document.
Advocates on both sides expected the outcome to be closer this time, thanks to concerns about annual deadlock in the Legislature over the size of the Permanent Fund dividend, an issue that convention supporters said they wanted to resolve with changes to the Alaska Constitution.
But on Wednesday afternoon, 70% of voters had voted against the measure with nearly all precincts counted, a greater margin of defeat than most past votes on the issue. The votes are required in the 66-year-old Alaska Constitution.
Opponents of the ballot measure, led by campaign group Defend Our Constitution, said a diverse coalition of prominent Alaska groups helped swing momentum against a convention. In their campaign, they said a convention could open up the state to major policy shifts on a variety of issues, including privacy rights, hunting and fishing privileges and abortion access.
“To see all those people on the same side of an issue, this transcends politics,” said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman with Defend Our Constitution. “This was never a partisan issue, it was an Alaskan issue.”
Supporters, led by the group Convention YES, said a flood of campaign donations from Outside allowed the opposition to overshadow their message. Craig Campbell, chair of Convention YES and former Republican lieutenant governor, called opponents’ argument that the state would open “Pandora’s box” by holding a constitutional convention “paranoia.”
“Alaskans are still very concerned about the Legislature taking money that should be going to citizens,” Campbell said.
Defend Our Constitution dominated spending 80 to 1.
They recently reported spending $4 million and raising $4.7 million. The donations came mostly from Outside organizations like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which is based in Washington, D.C. and has been described as a left-wing dark money group.
Convention YES spent about $50,000, usually from small contributions from individual Alaskans, allowing them to make small ad purchases.
Shuckerow said the money raised by his group was necessary to “penetrate the noise” of a busy election cycle that included scores of Alaska races, from the governor’s office to nearly every seat at the state and federal level.
Federal rules also mean the cost of advertising for ballot initiative campaigns can be several times more expensive than for candidates, another reason necessitating relatively higher spending, he said.
Polls showed a relatively close race earlier this summer, he said. But as the campaign wore on, an array of Alaska groups came out against a convention, helping tell their members about the potential risks of a convention.
The groups crossed the political spectrum, and included business, industry, environmental, fishing and hunting organizations. They included the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Native organization; the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest commercial fishing trade association; the Alaska Center, a prominent environmental group.
Business groups, including the Anchorage and Fairbanks chambers of commerce, were concerned about the chilling effect that the uncertainty a convention process would have on the business climate and investments in Alaska development projects, Shuckerow said.
Shuckerow said the vote reaffirmed that Alaskans prefer to use the existing amendment process to make changes to the constitution, rather than holding another convention.
Jim Minnery, a Convention YES steering committee member and president of the conservative Christian advocacy group Alaska Family Council, attributed the large loss to “$5 million in dark money.”
“It’s sad to think that the group that’s trying to stop you from having a constitutional convention is 5,000 miles away,” he said, referring to the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Campbell said Convention YES focused on the Permanent Fund and judicial reform as changes a constitutional convention could bring. But convention opponents capitalized on abortion access and other issues to stoke concern, he said.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, abortion supporters and opponents believed a constitutional convention was the likeliest path to change access to the procedure in the state.
Whether that issue affected the outcome of the ballot measure was difficult to know on Wednesday, observers said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates and the Alaska Center’s Education Fund created their own campaign group, “Protect Our Rights: No on 1,” to oppose a convention with a focus on abortion access.
Chair of Protect Our Rights, Rose O’Hara Jolley, who is also the state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, said the group had reached out to 100,000 voters. They said they believed abortion was a central reason why the vote failed by such a wide margin.
Mara Kimmel, executive director of ACLU Alaska, said she didn’t know what role abortion may have played.
Kimmel said Alaskans were concerned about a “constellation of issues” that might be affected by a convention.
“There was absolute fear of the unknown at a time of more division than unity in our state,” she said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comment from Rose O’Hara Jolley, state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates and chair of the Protect Our Rights: No on 1 group, and to clarify the group’s main focus was on opposing a convention to protect abortion access.