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Alaska can make history again with non-partisan statewide elections

  • Author: Mike Dingman
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 9, 2014

Congratulations, Alaska. You made history and elected a nonpartisan governor. The next four years are going to be difficult for this governor, possibly the most difficult any governor has ever faced. We will see a lot of changes, and we will watch how the new era of Alaska leadership takes shape.

However, the really interesting part of what happens next doesn't come with the upcoming legislative session, nor the three after that -- what's really interesting is what will happen in four years.

The problem with being a governor without a party is that in the next election, both parties will want to run their own candidates. Sure, the Democrats adopted Walker out of necessity for the time being, but they won't go through another election without a flag-bearer for their party.

What if it were different? What if what a party wanted didn't matter, if what the people wanted mattered more?

The Municipality of Anchorage, like most local governments, has non-partisan elections. Now this isn't to say that the candidates don't hold particular ideologies or belong to parties, or that the parties are in no way involved with the election -- it just means that two parties' candidates don't dominate the process.

Most Alaskans don't fit within party parameters, and our voter registrations reflect that. According to the most recent state Division of Elections data there are 512,125 registered voters. Of those 136,645 are registered Republicans and 70,853 are registered Democrats, while 190,307 define themselves as "undeclared" and 88,035 identify as "nonpartisan." The remainder is split among the smaller parties.

According to a 2001 survey by The National League of Cities, 77 percent of responding local governments have nonpartisan elections, while 23 percent work within the party system. However, all 50 state elections across the country are partisan.

In the municipal elections we often see many more choices for mayor with a nonpartisan structure. Many years in Anchorage we have seen five or six viable choices for Anchorage's top spot.

This can work on a statewide level too.

One of the lessons that we should come away with after the historic Walker-Mallott "unity ticket" election is that Alaskans don't feel the need to follow a party, we can unite behind the best candidate, regardless of a letter in front of their name. In fact, the last election and our voter registration numbers shows that most of us prefer that.

Alaska legislators aren't shy to jump across the aisle either. Former Republican Sen. Dave Donley was a Democrat before joining the GOP in 1997. Most recently we saw Lindsey Holmes make the switch from the Democrats to the GOP before the last legislative session. Democrats like Sen. Donny Olson and Rep. Lyman Hoffman have both been known to caucus with either party and before the 2012 election the Alaska Senate organized in a "bipartisan coalition" with a leadership made up of members of both parties.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett embraced the concept of unity, traveling to Juneau to welcome in the new administration at the inauguration. She also posed for pictures with Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck and Alaska Dispatch News columnist Shannyn Moore, a longtime adversary of Republicans.

Nonpartisan elections remove the party structure that allows people to skip doing their homework on a candidate and voting for the candidate their party tells them to vote for. Also, it could encourage more candidates, particularly in the governor's race, much like in the local elections.

The structure could be set up similar to the municipal election. All the candidates run in the general election with a percentage threshold to win the election. If nobody reaches that threshold then the top two candidates square off in a runoff election a month later.

There would have to be some structural issues worked out, but it could work for both the governor's race and legislative races.

Implementing such a system would be a tough sell. The two parties would fight pretty hard against it since it would dilute their influence over the elections. The parties wouldn't go away -- just as they aren't absent in the municipal elections, they would only lose control over who the candidates are -- that control would be given back to Alaska voters.

This would be a groundbreaking move. Alaska would become the only state with nonpartisan statewide elections. However, Alaska has always been different. Along with the recent shows of independence from the party system, we have always done things differently,

We wrote a Constitution with a diverse group of delegates that protected the privacy rights of citizens, and also gave the residents the ownership of subsurface mineral rights. We amended the Constitution after discovering the type of oil wealth we would have, we created the Permanent Fund to save money for when that oil wealth ran out and created the dividend program to share that wealth among Alaskans.

We are a fiercely independent state that doesn't concern itself with norms. Alaska's story is full of moments when we thought outside the box, broke a new trail. Let's make history one more time.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. Email him at michaeldingman(at)gmail.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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