Kelly Tshibaka, a right-wing Republican who ran unsuccessfully last year for U.S. Senate, announced Monday she had formed a new organization to advocate against ranked choice voting.
In doing so, Tshibaka became the second conservative Republican to turn her energy to combating ranked choice voting after losing an election in November. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who lost a U.S. House bid last year, also announced soon after the election that she would devote her time to fighting Alaska’s new voting laws.
Tshibaka’s nonprofit, Preserve Democracy, was incorporated last month, according to state records. In a prepared statement released Monday, Tshibaka tied Alaska’s 2022 voter turnout rate, which was lower than in the previous two midterm elections, to the new ranked choice voting system, calling it “a political weapon and an emerging threat to our democracy.”
Supporters of ranked choice voting — a voting system used in Alaska and Maine congressional races and in several other states for local elections — have said that it favors candidates who appeal to a broader swath of voters and incentivizes elected officials to collaborate across party lines and to avoid partisan rancor.
Ranked choice voting was implemented in Alaska through a 2020 ballot measure that was narrowly approved by voters. Under Alaska’s new voting rules, used in 2022 for the first time, all candidates in congressional and legislative races run in open, nonpartisan primaries. The top-four vote getters then advance to ranked-choice general elections.
“The polling that we conducted subsequent to the election demonstrated that there is strong support for it. Overwhelming numbers of voters found it simple,” said Bruce Botelho, former Alaska attorney general and a board member of Alaskans for Better Elections, the group behind the 2020 ballot measure.
Botelho said that Alaskans for Better Elections, which is backed with millions of dollars from outside organizations, is “fully prepared to defend the system.”
Tshibaka said that she intends to use her new organization to commission polling that could show different results than those found by Alaskans for Better Elections — shedding light on what she says is confusion that turns voters away from the polls.
In her U.S. Senate race — Tshibaka’s first run at elected office following a career spent mostly in the federal government bureaucracy — Tshibaka came in second to moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Tshibaka’s loss came despite support from the Alaska Republican Party and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
According to a statement from Preserve Democracy, the group will seek to stop or reverse ranked choice voting methods in Alaska and other states “by producing evidence showing the undemocratic effects of RCV.”
In Alaska, ranked choice voting can be appealed via two avenues: either via a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, or by a citizens’ ballot initiative.
Conservative Republicans in the Legislature have already introduced several bills to repeal ranked choice voting, but members of the bipartisan Senate majority have said they do not intend to pass a bill that would eliminate ranked choice voting, after the new voting method appeared to help several of them defeat more conservative opponents.
A separate group, Alaskans for Honest Elections, launched in November an effort championed by Palin to repeal Alaska’s new voting laws by ballot measure. Their initiative was approved on Friday by Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, which allows the group to begin gathering the 30,000 signatures needed to put the initiative on the 2024 ballot. Even if they are successful in gathering the necessary signatures, ranked choice voting will be preserved at least through the 2024 election cycle, unless legislators pass a bill changing the voting laws this year.
Art Mathias, a leader of Alaskans for Honest Elections, said that Palin has served as the organization’s “national spokesperson” and has been working to help the group raise funds outside of the state
Tshibaka, meanwhile, said Monday she would not get involved in the ballot initiative, positing that her involvement could make the effort appear more partisan.
“At this point in time, I think it just really muddies the waters. And it makes it a political thing when it shouldn’t be a political thing,” Tshibaka said. “I’m concerned that if I get involved in any of these efforts to try and directly repeal it here, it really won’t be about the effort. It’ll be more about the big names involved.”
With the ballot measure effort already underway, Alaskans for Better Elections is gearing up for a fight to preserve ranked choice voting in Alaska.
“We are working from the assumption that this will be a major ballot issue in 2024,” Botelho said.
Record low turnout?
According to the Alaska Division of Elections, just over 267,000 registered voters participated in the 2022 election, the lowest number of voters since 2010, when nearly 259,000 registered voters participated.
Elections held in years when presidential candidates are not on the ballot typically have lower participation rates. In both 2014 and 2018, around 285,000 Alaskans cast ballots. But in the same years, the voter turnout rate appeared to plummet. That is because of a 2016 measure approved by Alaska residents that automatically registers eligible Alaska residents to vote when they apply for the Permanent Fund dividend. Largely driven by that measure, the number of people registered to vote in Alaska ballooned from less than 500,000 in 2010 to more than 600,000 in 2022, while the state population remained virtually unchanged.
Still, Tshibaka cites the election turnout rate, as one of the primary drivers of her new initiative. On paper it is the lowest in state history, even if in practice the 2022 and 2010 voting rates are very similar.
“It’s concerning to me that across Alaska the votes didn’t come in, across political parties they didn’t come in, across the socio-economy spectrum they didn’t come in,” Tshibaka said.
Rather than a reaction to her recent loss under ranked choice voting, Tshibaka said the new group is meant to warn other states about the dangers of what has transpired in Alaska.
“I don’t think I would have started this had it just been a loss to Murkowski but not had such glaring data behind it that was really alarming. For me, it was the record low voter turnout, combined with all the voices I heard over two years,” Tshibaka said.
But Botelho, with Alaskans for Better Elections, said the lower voter turnout could be a matter of voters getting used to a new system.
“The fact that it was different may have discouraged people from giving it a try. There’s no doubt that we have a burden — in particular Alaskans for Better Elections and the Division of Elections — to do what we can to continue to educate the public about it,” Botelho said. “It’s our first year trying this. I fully expect that turnout will improve over time, but turnout is also primarily driven by the issues that are on the ballot and the candidates and offices that are up for reelection.”
The new voting system, which appeared to favor moderate candidates at the expense of conservative Republicans during its first Alaska run, had achieved the goals set out by Alaskans for Better Elections, according to Botelho.
“It’s clear that it doesn’t favor any particular party, but I do think it has achieved what we had hoped it would do: it would bring more people who were willing to offer their names up as candidates across the political spectrum; it would encourage candidates to try and build bridges and work towards the center, which I think has been lacking in the state for some time,” he said.
In an interview earlier this month, Republican Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom said negative messaging about Alaska’s elections — put out before the election even took place — could have had the effect of disenfranchising voters. Palin had turned negative messaging about ranked choice voting into a centerpiece of her campaign, while Tshibaka had emphasized throughout her run that the election would be determined by voter turnout.
Regardless of intent, Botelho said negative comments about Alaska’s new voting system could inadvertently impact voter turnout.
“Clearly a byproduct of it may have the result of discouraging people from voting,” Botelho said. “Hearing a message constantly about how ranked choice voting is somehow anti-democratic could in fact impact people’s decision about whether to vote or not.”
Tshibaka’s Monday announcement was the first public indication she has given of her post-election plans, following more than 18 months of full-time campaigning ahead of the November election. Before that, Tshibaka worked as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration under Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. That was the first and only job Tshibaka has held in Alaska, after working for most of her career in Washington, D.C.
Preserve Democracy lists Heather Gottshall, Simcha Weed and Stuart Gates as directors of the group. Gottshall, an Alaska resident, was one of Tshibaka’s campaign surrogates last year. Gates, a strategic communications adviser, lives in Florida. Weed, who has worked for the Department of Defense on cybersecurity issues, resides in Mexico. The group relies on contributions both from Alaska and from out of state, according to Tshibaka.
Tshibaka said she expects the ranked choice voting efforts to take up a fifth of her time in the coming months. Her other endeavors include a newly formed consulting company called Denali Strategies, formed just days after the election, that Tshibaka said she is using to work with Alaska businesses on projects related to the housing crisis in Alaska. And she hasn’t ruled out another run for office — though she has not decided on a particular race.
“I like the idea of running again in the future, but it has to be for the right seat and at the right time. And right now I’m not thinking about any of that,” Tshibaka said.