An initiative proposes to overhaul Alaska’s elections. But not everyone thinks they’re broken.

Bill Ferguson exits a voting booth at a precinct in the Southwest Alaska hub community of Bethel, in 2016. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Last month, a longtime Alaska state senator, John Coghill of North Pole, lost his seat.

Coghill came from a longtime Republican family, and over 22 years in the Legislature, he repeatedly pushed socially conservative bills. But his colleagues also came to respect his willingness to compromise and work across party lines.

That’s one of the reasons why a group of Alaska political activists is now targeting the process that led to Coghill’s defeat. Backed by millions of dollars from three Outside reformers, the group has proposed a citizens initiative to change Alaska’s entire election system.

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A white man with a bald head and glasses in a black suit and red tie speaks into a microphone
John Coghill (Skip Gray/360 North)

For Coghill, it wasn’t the majority of voters in his 35,000-person Senate district who chose to end his career. Instead, it was the mere 1,739 who turned out to vote for his opponent, Robert Myers, in the Alaska Republican Party primary.

Myers, who advanced to the general election, holds hard-line GOP positions and favors deep state spending cuts to pay for a much larger Permanent Fund dividend. Just before the primary, his campaign reposted a digital ad declaring Myers as part of the “No Compromise PFD Group.”

The initiative’s drafters argue that this is not how Alaska’s election system should work, by punishing bipartisanship and rewarding partisan loyalty. And they’re now proposing an overhaul.

The initiative, Ballot Measure 2, would mandate more transparency about who’s funding the super PAC-like independent spending groups that operate in Alaska’s elections.

But its two most ambitious provisions target the election process itself: The initiative would do away with Alaska’s partisan primary altogether, replacing it with a single ballot open to all voters, and the top four candidates would advance to the general election. Supporters say the change would reduce political parties’ power to shape the results, as they would lose the ability to block members of other parties from participating in their primaries, like Republicans do now.

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Then, in the general, Alaskans would choose winners using a new system called ranked choice voting. Voters would rank candidates in their order of preference; if no one wins more than 50% of first-choice votes, the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed to their second choices, and the process repeats until a candidate wins a majority.

Nationally, the popularity of ranked choice voting and so-called “open” primaries has grown amid increasing polarization. And the election systems are used in a handful of states and an array of cities.

But they’ve never been combined for statewide elections in the way that the Alaska initiative proposes, leaving a measure of uncertainty about how it could transform the state’s politics and government.

Supporters, however, argue that one thing is clear: It’s hard to imagine them making things worse than the current system.

Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall (courtesy photo)

“People like to say, ‘Oh, throw the bums out — they’re not getting their job done,’” said Scott Kendall, the Anchorage attorney and political operative who helped write the initiative. “I think we’ve built a system engineered to make them fail.”

Initiative critics say that Alaska’s elections already work just fine, even if they acknowledge a level of gridlock at the state Capitol. The also cite research suggesting that ranked choice voting’s complexity is linked to some votes not being counted and a drop-off in turnout.

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“If you’re saying, ‘Hey, Juneau’s not working, government’s broken, we’re on the wrong track,’ yes, yes and yes. The issue is, will this address any of those things? My answer is no, no and no,” said Brett Huber, the strategist and former aide to Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy who’s running the campaign against the initiative.

Bipartisan support, bipartisan opposition

Huber’s organized opposition campaign popped up only last month, and it’s since reported raising some $250,000 largely from conservative organizations, right-leaning businesses and businessmen.

But the measure faces objections not just from Republicans but from leading Democrats, like former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, and left-leaning groups like Planned Parenthood.

Initiative supporters, meanwhile, have been campaigning for more than a year, and they enjoy a huge cash advantage. They’ve raised more than $4 million to pay for polling, advertising and an array of consultants who span Alaska’s political spectrum.

The supporters are also bipartisan, with a mix of political leaders and activists who defy easy characterization.

Voting booths in Ketchikan. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

One theme stands out. Of the six current lawmakers publicly backing the measure, five belong to the bipartisan majority that currently controls the Alaska House — and that the Alaska Republican Party has been trying to remove for the past four years.

While the boosters and critics don’t break down on clear ideological lines, it’s worth paying attention to the makeup of the initiative’s supporters, since they offer a likely indication of who would benefit if it passes, according to Jack Santucci, a political science professor at Drexel University who’s studied election reform.

“You don’t really know what you’re going to get with this reform stuff. But a pretty good guide is the sort of coalition pushing for it,” Santucci said. “Usually, not always, the reform coalition ends up in power.”

From the Progressive Era to a “venture capitalist” campaign

The U.S. push toward ranked choice voting, specifically, dates back to the Progressive Era, when it was adopted in two dozen cities. At the time, Americans were similarly frustrated by polarization and gridlock in Congress, Santucci said.

Ireland and Australia have also used ranked choice voting for a century. And the Oscars use a form of the system to choose nominees for the different award categories.

While nearly all of the Progressive Era cities abandoned ranked choice voting, governments across the U.S. have increasingly turned back to it: San Francisco approved it in 2002, Maine voters passed it in 2016 and New York City will use it for the first time next year.

Massachusetts is voting on its own initiative in November.

The Alaska initiative grew out of conversations that Kendall said he had with a half-dozen other “campaign veterans” and “election experts” in Alaska. He wouldn’t identify any of them except Bruce Botelho, a Democrat and former attorney general under both Republican and Democratic governors.

Over the course of several months, Kendall said, the drafters kicked around reform ideas and critiques of the status quo. Once the 25-page proposal was written, the authors did research and polling to show that the measure was politically viable in Alaska, and then, like “venture capitalists,” they set out to raise more money, Kendall said.

Wealthy reformers sign on

Three wealthy donors signed on and have collectively donated the vast majority of the money for the campaign.

Nearly $2 million has come from an organization funded by Kathryn Murdoch, a daughter-in-law of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Kathryn Murdoch is the wife of Rupert Murdoch’s younger son, James.

The couple has increasingly split from the conservative, polarizing politics of Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings, which include Fox News. In July, James Murdoch quit his board seat at News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and Kathryn Murdoch has publicly endorsed and donated to efforts to fight climate change and partisan gridlock.

Kathryn Murdoch wouldn’t agree to an interview, but in a prepared statement sent by the initiative campaign, she said she supports “nonpartisan election reform as a way to help fix our broken political system.”

“It’s not about supporting a particular candidate, policy, or party that I agree with. It’s about having a government that truly represents the people and is able to solve problems,” the statement quoted Murdoch as saying. “If candidates must campaign to the entire electorate in the primary and must earn a majority of votes to win the general, they are more likely to represent all of the voters once in office –– not just the base of their party or their largest campaign contributors.”

Another $2 million has come from Action Now Initiative, an organization financed by a Houston couple named John and Laura Arnold.

Houston philanthropists John and Laura Arnold. (courtesy photo)

John Arnold was once an energy trader at Enron Corp., where he reportedly made the company $750 million in profits in a single year before the company collapsed in an accounting scandal. He then founded a hedge fund and now is worth an estimated $3.3 billion, according to Forbes.

The Arnolds, who wouldn’t agree to an interview, have signed a pledge to give away the majority of their wealth to social causes. Their philanthropic group, Arnold Ventures, now has 100 employees, including attorneys and PhDs, and it focuses on health care, criminal justice, education and tax and pension policy.

The group’s interest in overhauling elections grew out of its inability to translate what it calls common sense, widely-supported reforms into action from elected officials, according to Sam Mar, an Arnold Ventures official.

“We believe that addressing the underlying root problems of our democracy will lead to a government that does a better job of solving problems for everyday Americans,” Mar said in an email.

Research shows “tentative” signs, not “silver bullets”

Supporters argue that the three big measures included in the 25-page proposal will boost transparency, participation, access and choice in Alaska’s elections.

Researchers have found that open primaries were linked to California legislators becoming less extreme in their politics.

Research has also shown that ranked choice voting, on its own, is associated with more women and people of color winning elections.

And voters in places with ranked choice elections have said they’re more satisfied with candidates’ campaigns, and seen less negative campaigning. In San Francisco’s 2018 mayoral election, two candidates drew national attention by filming an ad in which they endorsed each other, in a bid to secure second-choice votes.

But other data show that ranked choice election results have been very rarely different than they would be if votes were counted using traditional systems — only about 4% of the time. Political scientists also say that because the system has not been used widely in the U.S., there’s a limited body of research on it.

“It’s a relatively new thing,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “What we know so far is somewhat tentative, because there’s just not a lot of evidence or track record to make very definitive conclusions.”

And no other state uses the two major overhauls proposed for Alaska — open primaries and ranked choice general election voting — together. So it’s hard to say how, exactly, they’d change Alaska’s representative government.

Mar, from the Arnold family’s philanthropy, said the group is paying for more research to test the effectiveness of the changes it favors.

“We are under no illusion that there is a silver bullet that will solve all the problems that face our democracy,” Mar said. “However, we can all agree that the status quo is clearly not working for anyone except entrenched special interests.”

There’s enough of a foundation of evidence nationally and globally, Mar added, to support broader adoption of the proposals in places where there’s “local grassroots support.”

What the critics say

Kendall, the attorney, said that the initiative has grassroots support, citing the 36,000 Alaskans who signed the petition to put the question on the November ballot.

Kendall’s campaign has also recruited an 18-member, volunteer steering committee filled with prominent Alaska Natives, political leaders and business figures.

But two of the initiative’s most enthusiastic boosters are on its payroll.

The campaign has paid Kendall’s law firm more than $200,000, and one of the initiative’s co-chairs, independent former Rep. Jason Grenn of Anchorage, has received more than $10,000 for social media and strategy work, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Of more than $4 million that initiative supporters have raised to date, more than 99% has come from Outside groups. Some $20,000 has come from individuals, according to campaign finance disclosures, though the campaign says it has a larger number of individual donors than any other initiative in the past decade.

The opponents bring together some unlikely allies. Early on, two of the top donors to the campaign were Republican former Gov. Sean Parnell and Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

While Planned Parenthood opposes the initiative, so does Alaska Family Action, one of the state’s leading anti-abortion groups.

Among the criticisms of the initiative: It would water down Alaska’s politics by encouraging candidates to play to the middle.

Brett Huber, right, and other officials from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cabinet at a news conference in December. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“Who wins? The least objectionable candidate,” said Huber, the campaign manager. “If we race toward mediocrity, and we squelch ideas and we squelch debate, we’re going to come up with poorer solutions. And Alaska is at a time where we need good solutions to big problems.”

Research also suggests that the complexity of ranked choice voting leads to lower voter turnout, particularly in noncompetitive elections.

Then there’s the problem of “ballot exhaustion” — when ballots don’t end up counting toward final results because all the candidates ranked by the voter have been eliminated from contention.

Ranked choice voting boosters claim that the system ensures that candidates can’t win without majority support. But political scientists have documented elections in which, because of ballot exhaustion, less than 46% of percent voters ranked the winners.

“We have 25 pages of legislation that completely annihilates our current election system and replaces it with a failed experiment,” said Huber. “It’s bad policy that’s been tested and failed in other areas that’s being foisted upon us because people don’t like election results.”

The initiative’s boosters, meanwhile, are betting that voters will see Alaska’s current election system as fueling enough acrimony and polarization that they’ll be willing to take their chances with a new one.

“Whatever it does, this is going to create a system that rewards instead of punishes compromise,” Kendall said. “And that’s the only way we get out of some of these messes.”