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The Trail

Alaska Democrats preparing for new primary voting system say Iowa’s problems won’t be repeated

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 18
  • Published February 17

JUNEAU — Alaska’s Democrats have thrown away their old way of picking presidential candidates and are preparing to debut a new ranked-choice, vote-by-mail system for their April 4 presidential primary.

Eight candidates will be on the ballot: former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and California billionaire Tom Steyer.

Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said the new system will not have the problems that plagued Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. For one, Alaska won’t have caucuses this year, a switch from 2016.

“They’re a fairly antiquated method of determining presidential preference,” she said.

Alaska Democrats, including sign holder Danielle Best, caucus for Bernie Sanders in the parking lot of West High School on Saturday, Mar. 26, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In 2016, Alaskans complained about overcrowding, long waits and the inaccessibility of the existing system for picking presidential candidates. After proposing and discarding a plan for smartphone voting, state Democrats have now moved to a mailed ballot, something Kavanaugh said should be accessible to many more of the state’s 75,000 registered Democrats.

“It surprises me how many people I’ve encountered since I moved to the state who have never actually weighed in on the presidential primary process,” she said.

Presidential primaries are run by the party, rather than the state, and operate under different rules from the Aug. 18 state primary or the Nov. 3 general election.

Four years ago, 10,610 Democrats participated in caucus meetings across the state, and almost 80% chose Bernie Sanders.

This year, the party is planning for 20,000 or more participants. Alaska’s primary has the potential for greater-than-normal importance because there is no clear Democratic frontrunner.

“I would expect that just the vote by mail participation is going to be at least twice as large, if not more, than previous caucus participation on a statewide level,” said Wigi Tozzi, the Alaska Democrats’ state primary director.

Iowa Democrats attempted to modernize their caucuses with an ill-fated smartphone application. Alaska’s Democrats have gone another direction, he said.

“We’ve traded electronic logistics for mechanical,” Tozzi said.

Registered Democrats will be mailed ballots starting March 6 and have until March 24 to postmark them back to a central counting location in Anchorage. Forty-five in-person voting locations will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 4 across the state, but rather than scan the ballots and send the results electronically, Democrats will manually transport most votes in sealed bins back to Anchorage for counting.

“All of the ballots will be coming back to Anchorage in some form,” Tozzi said.

Tozzi and Kavanaugh declined to say what firm the party has hired to assist with the election, citing security concerns.

On election night, candidates must receive 15% of the vote in order to be considered “viable” and eligible to receive one or more of the state’s 15 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. There are 3,979 pledged delegates nationwide and hundreds more delegates who are not required to follow the vote.

The April 4 vote determines which candidates receive what share of votes at the state Democratic convention, held May 15-16 in Fairbanks. Convention delegates then vote for their choice to represent Alaska at the national convention in Wisconsin.

Because this is a ranked-choice ballot, if a voter picks someone who receives less than 15% of the vote, their top choice will be excluded, and the voter’s ballot goes to the second pick.

If you’re an interested voter, here’s what you need to do:

• Be a registered Democrat. The April 4 presidential primary is open only to registered Democrats. Because the presidential primary is run by the party, not the state, it can restrict who participates. All Democrats registered to vote in Alaska as of Feb. 18 will automatically receive a ballot.

If someone wants to register, they can do so online at https://voterregistration.alaska.gov/ and still participate in the election. The state’s Democratic party will allow Alaskans to register on Election Day at in-person polling places.

Receive a ballot. This year’s primary is being conducted mostly by mail. Next week, the Alaska Democratic Party will send reminder postcards to all Democrats registered to vote in Alaska as of Feb. 14. Anyone who gets a postcard will get a ballot at that same address. Ballots will be mailed March 6.

Anyone who doesn’t get a postcard (and wants to vote) or who won’t be at their registered address between March 6 and March 24 can request a ballot online later this month at the Alaska Democratic Party’s website.

Someone who misses the sign-up deadline can show up in person April 4 at one of the party’s 45 in-person voting locations statewide. Locations have not yet been finalized.

Fill out a ballot. The presidential primary this year is a ranked-choice ballot, which means voters will be asked to rank in order their top five preferred candidates. Eight candidates will be on the ballot — everyone who registered by the January deadline, minus those who dropped out by Feb. 14.

Any candidate that drops out in the meantime will remain on the ballot, but votes for them will not be counted.

Ballots submitted by mail must be postmarked by March 24. Any voter who prefers to vote in person can visit an in-person voting location from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 4.

Wait for results. Under the state’s rules, any candidate who receives less than 15% of the statewide vote will be eliminated, and voters who picked them as their top choice will have their ballot counted for their second choice instead. That process continues until all remaining candidates have at least 15% of the vote.

The party’s goal is to have results by 11 p.m. April 4, but that’s only a tentative plan. It may take additional days.

Alaska has 15 pledged delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July. Each winning candidate will receive the vote of one or more of those delegates, based on their share of the statewide vote. There are 3,979 pledged delegates nationwide.

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