Two sides will line up before the Alaska Supreme Court on Feb. 19 to argue if a ballot initiative that would completely remake Alaska elections meets legal criteria.
On the one side, the State of Alaska Division of Elections will argue that there are three parts to the initiative, and that makes it in violation of the single subject rule.
Alaskans for Better Elections, sponsored by a liberal Outside group using frontman former Rep. Jason Grenn as its local face, wants to create ranked voting and dismantle the party walls of primaries, to have open primaries where the top four vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of their party, as they do in California. The system would allow Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, and vice-versa.
The third item on the initiative relates to campaigns, and would prohibit certain kinds of campaign contributions.
The Division of Elections says that is three items for an initiative and the law limits it to one.
Alaskans for Better Elections will be in court with their lead lawyers Scott Kendall, former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Walker, and Jahna Lindemuth, former attorney general for Walker, arguing that it’s just one thing on the ballot, not three.
Kendall and Lindemuth are the same lawyers litigating to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Kendall was also the campaign manager for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s last run for office. He would have observed that in rural Alaska, some voters would want to vote the Republican ballot in order to support Murkowski in the primary, but vote a Democrat-everybody-else ballot to get their Democrats into legislative seats. In a closed primary, people vote one ballot or the other.
Ann Brown, vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party, says the initiative, if passed, would destroy the integrity of Alaska’s elections.
In a ranked-choice election, voters “rank” their choice of candidates for a given office. Candidates getting more than 50% of the vote in the first round of counting would win office immediately. But if no candidate wins an outright majority, then some clever calculating is done, until one candidate exceeds the 50 percent threshold.
The goal of Alaskans for Better Elections is to flip Alaska to a Democrat state. Outside groups are targeting Alaska because of its weak voter initiative laws — all kinds of things can get on the ballot in Alaska, if there are enough signatures gathered.
Ranked choice voting has been implemented in Maine, while the open primary — also called a jungle primary — operates in California and locks Republicans out of elected office.
Democrats in Iowa used ranked voting during their presidential caucus this month, with disastrous results that left many participants losing confidence in the fairness or transparency of the process.
Ranked-choice voting enables candidates with limited voter support to win elections, Ann Brown wrote in an op-ed in December.
“Maybe Mr. Grenn believes he could have defeated Rep. Rasmussen in 2018, even without support from his constituents, under this system. All Mr. Grenn would have had to do to continue to be considered is not be the candidate with the lowest votes received; he could have persisted in the race long after his expiration date,” she wrote.
“Consider this – a 2015 study of four local elections in Washington and California using ranked-choice ballots found that the winner in all four elections never received a majority of the votes. This is because voters usually do not rank all possible candidates. For the sake of expediency and their own sanity, voters typically only list their top two or three candidates. If those candidates are eliminated, then so are the votes of these individuals. Under a ranked-choice system, ballots that do not include the ultimate victors are summarily cast aside. While this creates the appearance of a majority of votes in favor of the winner, it obscures actual voter choices; it’s a system that fundamentally disenfranchises voters,” Brown argued.
In 2018, a conservative House member lost the election despite having won the most votes in the initial count. The Maine Secretary of State threw out more than 14,000 ballots that had not chosen a second, third, or fourth candidate, and the win went to the liberal on the ballot.
This meant that those who didn’t bother to rank other candidates had their ballots counted just once, but those who ranked candidates had their ballots counted up to three times.
In Maine, Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who received a plurality of first round votes, was unseated by Democrat Jared Golden due to the ranked choice distribution and the tossed ballots.
“One can see why progressives are so excited about this proposal. It reeks of elitism and is engineered to pad the fortunes of liberal candidates. Alaskan voters, don’t let yourselves be taken in. If this initiative reaches your ballot next year, vote it down,” Brown wrote.