Sponsors of complex ‘Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative’ say its benefits are clear

Voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary election at Glacier Valley Baptist Church in Juneau. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

Alaska elections would be very different if a proposed ballot initiative passes next year.

Advocates for the measure say it would promote more open politics in the state — but state Republican leaders say it’s unconstitutional.

California and Washington state have primaries where any registered voter can participate. Maine has elections where voters rank their choices. And some national election-reform advocates are calling for having the top four candidates in primaries make it to the general election.

But Alaska could become the first state to make all of these changes.

Jason Grenn, an independent and former state representative, is the primary sponsor of what’s called the Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative.

“We’re setting ourselves up, honestly, to try to be the gold standard of election reforms,” Grenn said.

The initiative would do a lot of things, like strengthen financial disclosure laws.

And the election reforms are complicated. Grenn said there are a lot of ways to help voters understand the process.

“In these states and cities that have implemented it, to kind of educate people, they’ll do a big … cookie election,” Grenn said. “And you rank your favorite cookies or you rank your favorite beer. Or you can rank your favorite movies. And so there’s different ways to kind of educate people.”

Currently, the top vote-getter from each party in the primaries, as well as any independent candidates, advance to the general election. There are separate primaries for the Republicans and for the Democrats and others.

If the initiative were to pass, primary voters would cast a vote for any candidate. That includes those who identify with a political party, independents and write-in contenders.

And the top four would advance. This could be any mix of four: four Republicans; four Democrats; a Republican, two Democrats and an independent; etc.

In the general election, voters would be able to rank the four candidates.

If a candidate gets a majority of the first-choice ballots, it’s over — they win.

But if that doesn’t happen, then the ballots of the people who voted for the fourth-place candidate would have their votes redistributed to the others, based on how the voters ranked them.

And at that point, if there’s still no candidate with a majority of the votes, then the voters for the third-place candidate would have their backup choices split between the two remaining candidates to determine the winner.

Grenn supports the change in part because it would provide an incentive for candidates to be the second-choice of voters who like other candidates. Grenn said candidates in ranked-choice elections don’t want to alienate those voters.

“Stay away from negative advertising,” Grenn said of these candidates. “Talk more about … the issues that they want to debate. And really, as voters, you know, every study, every poll says voters want more civility. They want less negative advertising.”

He said this advantage becomes even greater when it’s combined with the top-four system. That’s because it will no longer hurt for a more moderate or independent candidate who’s affiliated with a party to run in the primary, and they can still make it to the general election even if they don’t appeal to voters on a narrow, partisan basis.

“Now they have a fair shake because they can earn that second-place vote, they can get to the general election and have more time to work with voters,” Grenn said.

Grenn closed his pitch for the initiative by asking whether voters are happy with the current system.

“Take the time to think about, ‘Is the system working for me right now? Is this candidate representing me right now?’” he said. “I think there’s always ways to improve current systems.”

One person who prefers the current system is Glenn Clary, Alaska Republican Party chair.

“It eliminates the abilities for parties to elect their own legislators to go to the general,” Clary said. “And then I think people need to have a … clear choice on the ballots from both parties. And I don’t see anything wrong with the existing system that we have.”

Clary said the initiative violates a provision of the Alaska Constitution that requires that the candidate for governor who receives the greatest number of votes to become the governor. He also said it violates the federal constitution.

“I think it goes against the First Amendment, of the right of association,” Clary said. “I believe Republicans, who desire to have a primary of their own, should have that right to have a primary of their own.”

Alaska Democratic Party leaders didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The initiative effort has received more than $500,000 from an out-of-state group, Unite America, that aims to reduce partisanship. It’s drawing interest from other groups focused on overhauling elections across the country.

Drew Penrose is legal and policy director for FairVote, a Maryland-based group that works to inform voters about ranked-choice voting and other changes.

Penrose agreed with Grenn that the combination of an open primary that advances four candidates and ranked-choice voting would work well.

“Having multiple viewpoints, more than two viewpoints present in the general election, is something that people probably want everywhere,” Penrose said. “And if there are multiple groups operating within the label of Republican, then it seems like providing a way for those to be expressed in the general election could have real value.”

Penrose noted that Massachusetts also may have ranked-choice voting on the ballot, and having very different states consider the change is generating excitement.

It’s far from a done deal that the initiative will even appear on Alaska’s ballot. The organizers have to gather more than 28,000 signatures by Jan. 21 to get it on the ballot next fall — Grenn said they already have “several thousand.” And if there are enough signatures, Clary said the Alaska Republican Party would consider a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.