A group seeking to reverse Alaska’s election reform has begun gathering signatures to put the question to voters on the 2024 ballot.
The ballot initiative is seeking to do away with open primaries and ranked choice voting in general elections, adopting instead Alaska’s previous elections rules, which included closed partisan primaries and traditional pick-one general elections.
Ranked choice voting and open primaries were adopted in Alaska in 2020 through a ballot measure that passed narrowly, with just over 50% of voters in favor of the measure, making Alaska only the second state to use ranked choice voting in statewide elections, and the only one to combine ranked choice voting with open primaries. Now, a new group — Alaskans for Honest Elections — is trying to get rid of the new voting laws the same way they came to be, by putting the question to voters.
To do so, the group must gather the signatures of at least 26,000 Alaskans representing three-quarters of Alaska House districts. It’s an undertaking that organizers say will take several months, and it began in Anchorage on Thursday, with an event at Wellspring Church that attracted more than 200 people.
By the time the event was over, many of those at the event were sporting the “rank choice voting” stickers and pins handed out by organizers. Rank, not ranked, as in “foul,” they reasoned.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin, who lost a bid for Alaska’s lone congressional seat in the state’s first-ever ranked choice regular election in November, had been scheduled to appear at the event but didn’t because she was out of state, the organizers said. Both Palin and U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, a conservative Republican who lost a bid to unseat moderate incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have been outspoken about their opposition to Alaska’s new election rules in the wake of their election losses.
Organizers of the ballot initiative said Thursday that they’re confident they will succeed in gathering enough signatures to put the question on the 2024 ballot. They say they intend to raise millions of dollars to launch a campaign focusing on what they see as the flaws of ranked choice voting.
At the Thursday event, ballot initiative organizers Art Mathias and Phillip Izon said their primary gripe with ranked choice voting is that it is confusing, thus causing fewer people to vote. Opponents of ranked choice voting have said that voter turnout — which was lower than turnout in the previous midterm election but not a record low — is evidence of the flaws in the new system. But Mathias, a Christian minister, divulged that the movement is motivated by a desire to help conservative Republicans, like Tshibaka and Palin, win elections.
Proponents of ranked choice voting say that the new system does not favor one political party over another, and Tshibaka and Palin’s recent losses are a feature of the new system, not a bug. Ranked choice voting, they say, is meant to ensure that elected officials appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, rather than a narrower, more partisan base. Successful candidates under the system last year included conservative Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola and Murkowski — a moderate Republican.
Still, Mathias warned that if ranked choice voting isn’t reversed, “we will never elect another conservative and we will only have outside corporations coming in and buying our candidates and buying our elections.”
He went on to tie the initiative to fights against progressive causes, including public libraries and LGBTQ rights. “It’s the same corporations that are redefining what an election is, but they are also redefining what books we can have in the library. They’re also redefining our biology. They keep preaching that men can get pregnant,” Mathias said.
Izon, on the other hand, said the initiative is nonpartisan and that “all Alaskans can join in on this effort to help us.”
“I don’t want anyone in this room to think that we’re a partisan thing. We’re not,” Izon told the crowd. It was a feeble attempt at nonpartisanship in a room crowded with “Make America Great Again” hats and other Trump paraphernalia.
‘A fight for our Republic’
The Thursday event yielded roughly 300 signatures, Mathias said, with more to come from events in the Kenai Peninsula, Palmer, Wasilla, Fairbanks and Ketchikan. But signatures were only half the battle at the event, where attendees weren’t allowed to sign the initiative until the end of a two-hour pitch that ended with an ask for donations to fund the anti-ranked choice voting cause.
“It’ll be one thing to get this on the ballot. But then we have to win,” said former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who is one of several Republican ex-elected officials — including Palin, former state Sen. Jerry Ward, former attorney general Kevin Clarkson and former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell — who have come together to advise the ballot group.
Organizers said they have already raised nearly $500,000 and that the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group, had pledged additional support.
Michael Alfaro, who launched a political action committee to support Palin and Tshibaka ahead of the November election, said Thursday that he had helped the ballot initiative group raise funds. Alfaro organized a poorly attended rally for Palin and handed out thousands of Tshibaka-branded lightsabers last year. He said he was amazed at how easy it was to get monetary contributions for the cause of fighting ranked choice voting, compared to the challenges of fundraising for Palin and Tshibaka.
“We are in the fight of our lives. We are in a fight for our republic,” Alfaro said.
Ward, who led Trump’s Alaska campaigns and was a surrogate for Palin’s congressional bid, said that fundraising will be critical moving forward.
“We’ve got a whole lot more money that needs to be raised,” said Ward. “They spent $7 million to get it on the ballot. They’re going to spend $14 million to keep it on the ballot.”
Ward was referring to money spent by Alaskans for Better Elections, the group behind the 2020 ballot initiative that put in place open primaries, ranked choice general elections, and new rules of so-called “dark money” groups spending money in Alaska to sway election results.
Alaskans for Better Elections mounted a campaign funded almost exclusively by Outside organizations and wealthy donors. And they have indicated that a similar campaign to protect Alaska’s new voting system could be mounted against those seeking to reverse the election reform.
“We will continue doing our best to educate Alaskan voters on what benefits we see the reform is having,” said Juli Luckey, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections. “The more Alaskans learn about the benefits, the more they’ll want to keep the system in place.”
As other states, including Nevada, consider similar ranked choice voting systems and election reform, opponents of Alaska’s voting system have painted their efforts as a nationwide fight.
“If we don’t act now, the entire U.S. election system is about to change,” Tshibaka told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on his podcast earlier this month.
The ballot initiative is separate from Tshibaka’s new organization, Preserve Democracy, which she says will educate Alaskans and others across the country about the downsides of ranked choice voting. But Alfaro pointed out Thursday that she is using the new organization to travel the state and speak about her election loss, rather than taking action to reverse ranked choice voting in the state.
Tshibaka has already hosted several events, including a recent fundraiser that drew a standing-room-only crowd at Bell’s Nursery in South Anchorage. Tshibaka did not attend the ballot initiative event this week, but said she intended for her organization to work in tandem with the ballot measure.
“It’s a ‘both and,’ not an ‘either or,’” Tshibaka said.