A DAY IN COURT FOR RANKED VOTING, NO-PARTY PRIMARIES
Alaska’s election system could be headed for a radical change if a three-part ballot initiative gathers steam — and 28,501 valid signatures.
But first, it has to get through its legal hurdles.
The “Alaskans for Better Elections” ballot initiative was argued in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday before Judge Yvonne Lamoureux, who is a registered nonpartisan.
The initiative would remove partisanship from primaries and largely from general elections. It would make it much harder for third-party groups to engage in campaigning in the state because it would tighten finance disclosure rules.
On the side of the “Better Elections” initiative sponsor stood lawyers Scott Kendall and Jahna Lindemuth.
They are the former chief of staff and attorney general for former Gov. Bill Walker, and their client is former Rep. Jason Grenn, who agreed to be the initiative sponsor and plaintiff.
On the other side were State of Alaska attorneys (who were once employees of Lindemuth and Kendall during the Walker Administration). Assistant Attorneys General Margaret Paton-Walsh and Cori Mills, argued on behalf of Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer who had denied allowing the Better Elections initiative to proceed to the ballot because it violates the “single-subject rule.”
The courtroom gallery held only a handful of interested onlookers, including this writer, a reporter from KTVA, and Josh Applebee, who is the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff. Grenn attended the oral arguments, but only a handful of others were in the audience. No representatives from the Republican Party attended, although the GOP has the most to lose if the ballot measure succeeds. The Alaska Republican Party insists on not allowing Democrats, Green Party, or Libertarians, for example, to vote on their primary ballot.
Kendall and Lindemuth’s services and the entire “Better Elections” campaign efforts are funded by Outside money that comes through organizations such as the liberal Massachusetts group Represent.Us, which gets funding from groups such as the “dark money” Tides Foundation. George Soros funds the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation.
These Outside groups know that it’s easy to get a ballot measure on an Alaska ballot, and it’s relatively cheap. Alaska is a target for Outside groups during every election cycle.
Attorney Kendall argued that past courts have always liberally interpreted that single-subject rules that are found both in statute and in the Alaska Constitution.
He cited the 2014 Marijuana Ballot Measure 2, which had four subjects: Legalize the commercialization of marijuana, create a tax structure for sales of cannabis products, set up a regulatory framework, and create a Marijuana Control Board to make decisions.
But the Assistant Attorney General Paton-Walsh said radically changing the election system in Alaska is an order of a different magnitude. Voters need to be able to decide each one of the changes separately, and the sponsors could have easily separated each proposal into a different ballot measure that would more appropriately be presented on its own.
As written, the measure is summarized in its title:
An Act prohibiting the use of dark money by independent expenditure groups working to influence candidate elections in Alaska and requiring additional disclosures by these groups; establishing a nonpartisan and open top four primary election system for election to state executive and state and national legislative offices; changing appointment procedures relating to precinct watchers and members of precinct election boards, election district absentee and questioned ballot counting boards, and the Alaska Public Offices Commission; establishing a ranked-choice general election system; supporting an amendment to the United States Constitution to allow citizens to regulate money in Alaska elections; repealing the special runoff election for the office of United States Senator and United States Representative; requiring certain written notices to appear in election pamphlets and polling places; and amending the definition of ‘political party’.
The most significant change proposed is to eliminate party politics in elections. All candidates, regardless of affiliation or non-affiliation, would run on the same primary ballot. The top four vote getters would proceed to the general ballot
IS IT LOG-ROLLING?
Voters might want to get “dark money” out of the election cycles, but they shouldn’t have to vote for the other things on the initiative just to express their will on the dark money question, Paton-Walsh argued. Lumping them together is an “all or nothing” proposition that voters should not have to make.
She said the initiative makes such significant change to the democratic process and the institution of elections themselves, that these changes should be separated.
Paton-Walsh said that campaign finance and the elections are separate functions, the first run by the Department of Administration through the Alaska Public Offices Commission, and the second run by the Division of Elections.
Further, having campaign finance reform packaged with mechanical changes to elections is log-rolling, she argued. Log-rolling is when initiative sponsors deliberately insert into a ballot measure dissimilar subjects in order to gain the passage of one particular item. Log-rolling is committed through stealth, inadvertence, and fraud.
Mother Jones magazine, a far-left publication, defines log-rolling initiatives this way: If a proposed amendment were to make it to the ballot via petition, it’s bound by a “single-subject rule” aimed at preventing “log-rolling”—forcing voters to compromise one issue for another, or leading an unpopular measure to success by tying it to a more likable cause.
The log-rolling example in Mother Jones referred to last year’s Florida Amendment Nine, which would put a ban on both offshore drilling and indoor vaping in the State Constitution. It was allowed on the ballot and passed.
Kendall said no such log-rolling is being done with this ballot initiative, and that all three of the subjects being debated are intertwined, and must be considered as one package.
The set of disparate items is not as wide as offshore drilling and vaping, but is the method of voting and the method of campaigning close enough to be under the same ballot title? That’s for the court to decide now.
Judge Lameroux asked Kendall if he agreed that his best argument for keeping all three aspects in the ballot measure is increasing voter knowledge.
“Absolutely,” Kendall replied. “It’s to empower voter knowledge and empower voters with more choices.”
Then why not separate initiatives so voters could have distinct choices? Lamoreaux asked.
“Each one has less efficacy on its own,” Kendall explained.
Plus, he said, having to collect signatures for three ballot initiatives is expensive, and his group’s polling shows that 65 percent of voters favor these initiatives. Kendall estimated it could cost up to $150,000 to get the 28,500 signatures needed from 30 of Alaska’s 40 House districts, once you include travel and other expenses.
Already the group has gathered more than $150,000 in donations from mainly outside groups, and it has not even started collecting signatures.
In order to be on the November ballot, those signatures need to be gathered by the beginning of the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 21.
It appears from statements made in court on Monday that both the State and the lawyers for “Alaskans for Better Elections” are gearing up to argue their cases once again before the Alaska Supreme Court.
Lamoureux said she’ll come up with a decision swiftly.
Glenn Clary, Chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said, “This is important enough that every Republican in Alaska should be engaged in defeating this ballot measure, if the courts foolishly rule to allow it to proceed.”
The essence of the State’s position on the Better Elections ballot measure is argued in this summary from Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.