A new group has announced it will attempt to do away with ranked choice voting in Alaska by ballot initiative, and former Gov. Sarah Palin was the first to sign the petition — before the outcome of her congressional bid is final.
Alaskans for Honest Government, a political action committee that formed last month, hosted an event Thursday evening where group organizers launched their effort to collect signatures to put the question of reinstating the state’s former voting system to voters on the 2024 ballot. Ranked choice voting was adopted in Alaska by ballot initiative in 2020, and first used in 2022.
Six days before final results in Alaska’s U.S. House race would be known, Palin spoke to a crowd of several dozen people at a South Anchorage church, calling ranked choice voting “whack” and promising to “fight for what’s right and to lead the rest of the nation in getting back to fair, free, transparent, clear elections.”
Ranked choice voting has been found to be constitutional both by the Alaska Supreme Court and in federal court. It is used in congressional elections in Maine and Alaska, and in local elections in several cities across the country. A ranked choice voting ballot initiative passed in Nevada this month, putting it on track to become the third state to use ranked choice voting in statewide elections.
Palin said she hadn’t given up on her hope for winning Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, but suggested she was already looking ahead to a reality in which she will not be serving in Congress.
The former vice presidential candidate was one of 48 candidates who ran in a special U.S. House election to replace former Rep. Don Young, who died in March. Palin received the largest share of votes in the 48-way primary in June, but lost the August general election to Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola. In November, Palin again faced Peltola, along with Republican Nick Begich and Libertarian Chris Bye. Peltola appears on track to repeat her victory, with Palin trailing in second place, but results won’t be final until Wednesday, when the Division of Elections plans to release the outcome of the ranked choice voting tabulation after all ballots are counted.
Palin has made railing against ranked choice voting a hallmark of her campaign, after one of her key backers — former President Donald Trump — attacked Alaska’s new voting system, saying it “can be crooked as hell” during his rally in Anchorage in July.
Ranked choice voting and the new open primary system system are credited by political observers for allowing Peltola to beat her Republican rivals in a state won by Trump by double digits in 2020. But they also point to Republican infighting and Palin’s high negative ratings as key factors in the U.S. House race that Peltola won.
Palin said Thursday she hopes the new effort opposing Alaska’s current election laws “takes a big chunk” of her time.
“Because I’m passionate enough about it. If it takes a chunk of my time, that’s indicative of the people caring about it,” Palin said.
‘Out here first’
Alaskans for Honest Government registered with the Federal Elections Commission in mid-October. In the week leading up to the election, the PAC spent $20,000 opposing Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the U.S. Senate race and Peltola in the U.S. House race. Additional information about the group’s donors and cash-on-hand was not immediately available, and group organizers declined to say who their current financial backers are.
The group also registered as an entity with the Alaska Political Offices Commission on Nov. 1, with Phillip Izon as the entity’s officer. The three-member initiative committee includes Izon, Jaime Donley and Art Mathias. At an event hosted at the Wellspring Ministries on Thursday evening — where Mathias is founder and president — the group’s leaders said they planned to submit the initiative petition to Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer by Nov. 30 — the first step to get the question put to voters on the 2024 ballot.
To do so, the group must first gather 100 signatures from qualified registered voters. Many of the dozens of audience members at the Anchorage event signed the petition. The group is planning several additional events in the coming days in the Mat-Su region and in Fairbanks.
If certified by the lieutenant governor, the initiative group has a year to collect signatures from qualified registered voters. They must collect a number equal to at least 10% of those who voted in the preceding general election from places representing the majority of the state. Group leaders said they intended to gather more than 40,000 signatures and expected their effort would cost millions of dollars.
Mathias said the group is already aware of other initiatives to do away with ranked choice voting, but expected they would all ultimately be consolidated to a single effort.
“We’re out here first because we wanted to be out here first,” Mathias said.
A separate petition launched after the November election on website change.org has gathered more than 2,700 signatures as of Friday to “stop ranked choice voting in Alaska.” There was no apparent ballot initiative associated with the petition and Izon said it was not affiliated with their effort.
Izon said the group had reached out to Alaska Republican leaders for support but had been given the cold shoulder. “We don’t anticipate having their help,” Izon said. “At this point, I don’t have a lot of faith in them either.” Leaders of the Alaska Republican Party have long expressed opposition to ranked choice voting and have indicated they plan to put forward proposals to change the state’s current voting laws in the upcoming legislative session.
In 2020, the ballot initiative that put ranked choice voting in Alaska law was backed to the tune of millions by Outside groups, including Unite America and FairVote Action Fund, which advocate for voting reform nationwide and are funded by deep-pocketed individuals from out-of-state. Alaskans for Better Elections collected more than 40,000 signatures to put their initiative on the ballot. The measure passed narrowly by a margin of less than 4,000 votes, in a result that was confirmed by an election audit.
The 2020 ballot initiative overhauled several aspects of Alaska’s election laws. In addition to instated ranked choice voting for all congressional and state elections, it also put in place open primaries where the top four candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. That replaced the closed party primary system that had been in place for more than 20 years, which allowed party members to select the candidate from their party who would advance to the general election. The initiative also had a provision requiring Outside groups spending money to influence Alaska state elections to disclose the sources of their contributions.
Organizers of the new ballot measure said they planned to focus on repealing the elements relating to the primary system and ranked choice voting, and set aside the so-called “dark money” provision.
“Ranked choice voting is the weirdest, most convoluted and most complicated voter suppression tool that Alaskans could have come up with. And the point is, we didn’t come up with this. We were sold a bill of goods,” said Palin.
Scott Kendall, the Anchorage attorney who was one of the main authors of Ballot Measure 2 that put ranked choice voting in place, said Friday that even assuming the new ballot measure organizers can get their initiative on the ballot, it would face narrow odds given the rising popularity of Alaska’s new voting system, as measured by internal polling conducted by Alaskans for Better Elections.
“The system did narrowly pass but I have seen in poll after poll over the last two years that it’s become ever more popular,” Kendall said. “If something’s popular, people aren’t going to get rid of it.”
A recent poll commissioned after the November election by Alaskans for Better Elections found that 79% of Alaskans found ranked choice voting to be “simple.”
“To me, there are a lot of technical issues, technical hoops to jump through, but just on a basic viability level, it does not appear that there will be support for repealing it, and that’s at this moment — without even anyone running a campaign,” Kendall said.
Those technical hoops can be difficult to maneuver, and it appears Alaskans for Honest Government has already hit a couple snags. Izon said Thursday they had funded their website with a $2,500 contribution that had been reported to the Federal Election Commission as “an expense related to the election.” But the group is barred from using money reported to the FEC to finance an Alaska ballot measure activity.
“Federal monies have to be used in federal elections, state money in state elections. And there is no legally permissible way to report ballot measure expenses to the FEC,” Kendall said.
On top of that, the organization has registered with the state as an entity, rather than a group. According to state law, a group can have the principal purpose of influencing the results of elections, while an entity should not have influencing elections as their principal purpose.
“If they’re a ballot group, they have to register as a ballot group,” Kendall said.
Nestled in Palin’s remarks on Thursday about election concerns was lingering hope that she may still win her U.S. House bid.
“There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance here. We’re sitting in a moment where Sarah Palin is in second place. Ranked choice voting is the only way she can win this race. And that’s the element she is focused on attacking,” Kendall said.
Asked if she would attempt to challenge the results of her own election if it did not go her way, Palin — who is not stranger to filing lawsuits — said she had not yet decided but was skeptical of a legal challenge.
“Lawyers get rich and a lot of the inside baseball GOP crap goes on during things like that. A lot of power plays,” Palin said. A high profile libel suit brought by Palin against The New York Times was dismissed by a judge earlier this year, after reported high legal fees.
“A lot of that is useless and wastes resources. That’s the negative of having a goal of all these legal challenges, but questions need to be asked and any irregularities and any potential irregularities need to be investigated,” Palin said.
Election officials have not indicated there have been any irregularities in the election.
Even if the group is successful in their effort to put to voters the question of overturning Alaska’s election reform, the state will have at least one more election under Alaska’s current voting laws in 2024 — unless the Legislature passes a law changing the voting system. Some political leaders said that is improbable given the likely makeup of the Legislature, which is set to include several moderate lawmakers who would have been defeated under Alaska’s former voting system.
“A repeal of ranked choice will never pass the state Senate under the current membership that exists. It will never pass,” Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said at an event Thursday afternoon. Begich did not run for reelection.
Craig Campbell, Republican National Convention committeeman for Alaska and former Alaska lieutenant governor, said in an interview on Wednesday that ranked choice voting had worked against some Alaska Republican candidates, but also pinned their weaker-than-expected showings in the November election on internal rifts within the party.
“We probably need to, as a Republican Party, do a little better being unified, focusing on not targeting Republicans but targeting Democrats,” Campbell said. “I’ve seen the Republican Party over and over again spend a lot of time internally arguing.”
But Palin, who appeared to be the most high-profile name associated with the ballot initiative to repeal ranked choice voting, took a different approach, mentioning several times on Thursday her disagreements with Alaska Republican Party leadership and floating the idea of forming a separate party.
That rift was apparent in the party’s reaction to Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he would run for president again in 2024. Campbell and other Alaska Republican leaders said they would wait to see who else entered the race before making endorsements. Palin said Thursday she is “unequivocally” committed to supporting Trump’s bid.
“They’re wusses, is what they are,” Palin said of Alaska Republican Party leaders.
“Those people have got to go. Either that or we’re all going to go and we’re going to form a third party and we’re going to be independent. Those good old boys need to get ready for that,” Palin said, criticizing the two-party system even as she sought to preserve an election system predicated on it. “People may think that it’s working — this two party system — however, look at what just happened.”
Palin warned Thursday’s audience that under ranked choice voting, Trump may be unlikely to win Alaska’s three Electoral College votes in the next presidential election in 2024.
“Whether you like Trump or not, I’m using him as an example of ramifications,” said Palin.
ADN reporter Sean Maguire contributed to this report.