OUTSIDE MONEY ENGAGES IN POLITICAL TRICKERY IN ALASKA
By SEAN PARNELL AND MARK BEGICH
The Covid crisis has increased interest in improving America’s election system. But not all election reforms would make things better.
Here in Alaska, a Colorado-based political-action committee, Unite America, spent more than $1 million to place the so-called Better Elections initiative on the November ballot. It’s a bad plan.
The voting process in Alaska, as in most states, is simple: Voters pick one candidate for each office, and the candidate with the most votes wins. The initiative would introduce a confusing new system called ranked-choice voting. Voters would receive a grid to rank multiple candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of “first place” votes, the lowest-ranked candidate would be eliminated. Votes would be retabulated based on second choices—then third and fourth ones until a “majority” emerges.
Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, found that ranked-choice voting decreased turnout by 3 to 5 percentage points on average in cities that implemented it. Mr. McDaniel was blunt in his conclusion, telling the New York Times : “My research shows that when you make things more complicated, which this does, there’s going be lower turnout.”
Voters may also be discouraged to learn their ballots may not count at all in the final vote. If you pick only one candidate and decline to rank the others, and your candidate is eliminated, your ballot is thrown out under what’s called “ballot exhaustion.”
A 2014 study of four cities’ ranked-choice elections, published in the journal Electoral Studies, found that up to 27% of ballots were “exhausted” and thus excluded from the final vote total.
The system also encourages political trickery. In the 2018 San Francisco mayoral race, two progressive candidates campaigned jointly—even cutting a television ad together—to try to game the system against a more moderate rival.
The gambit failed but drew harsh condemnation from the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, which noted that “theories of elevating turnout and producing more positive, issue-oriented campaigns are not playing out in reality.”
Not surprisingly, several states and locales that experimented with ranked-choice voting—including Ann Arbor, Mich.; Aspen, Colo.; Pierce County, Wash.; and the state of North Carolina—have since repealed it.
Opposition to ranked-choice voting is bipartisan. In New York City, the state NAACP opposed it, and three Democratic members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus said it hurts “immigrants and communities of color.” Minnesota state Sen. Mark Koran, a Republican, co-sponsored legislation to outlaw ranked-choice voting in his state: “Every vote should count, and every vote should be as simple as ‘I picked my top candidate.’ ”
As former elected officials from different parties, we’ve had our share of disagreements. But we are united in our belief that the Better Elections initiative would be bad for our state. Alaskans shouldn’t have to doubt that their votes count.
Mark Begich, a Democrat, served as a U.S. Senator from Alaska, 2009-15. Sean Parnell, a Republican, served as Alaska’s governor, 2009-14.