Ballot Measure 2: Ranked choice voting would change voting in Alaska considerably

alaskans In the News

ICYMI: Read this in the PRESS or the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman

It sounds arcane and complicated – “Ranked Choice Voting” – but it’s really pretty simple. That’s what its proponents say of Ballot Measure 2, which will appear on the Nov. 3 state election ballot.

There are critics, however, including a former Alaska lieutenant governor who say BM 2 will be confusing and won’t work as advertised. It will spur lawsuits, too, they say.

Voters rank their choices in primary elections so that political parties can’t exclude independent or non-affiliated voters from voting in a primary. 

But that’s a way to exclude voters, since 62 percent of Alaskans don’t affiliate with a political party. If BM 2 passes there wouldn’t be a closed Republican primary. 

The ballot measure does something else that’s important, its proponents say. It shines light on “dark money,” the funding that pours into campaigns from interest groups who don’t have to identify themselves under current law. 

“The sharp rise in dark money spending on elections in Alaska in the past 15 years makes it difficult for voters to make an informed decision because they don’t know the true identity of those spending money to influence their vote,” the BM 2 campaign group said in a statement.

A recent example of the influence of ‘dark money’ came in the Alaska primary elections earlier this year when unknown persons poured an estimated $250,000 into campaigns targeted to defeat experienced moderate incumbent Republicans such as Anchorage’s Sen. Cathy Giessel, and Reps. Jennifer Johnston and Chuck Kopp. 

In Fairbanks, Sen. John Coghill, a respected veteran Republican, was defeated. Other experienced legislators like Sen. Gary Stevens of Kodiak; Natasha von Imhof of Anchorage and Rep. Steve Thompson of Fairbanks, a former Fairbanks mayor, survived the attacks but my slim margins.

Huge loophole in campaign disclosures

There are disclosure requirements now for political contributions but there is a huge loophole. “Independent expenditure” groups supporting a candidate don’t have to disclosure funding sources. The ballot measure addresses this, requiring the source to be disclosed of any campaign contribution greater than $2,000 by an independent expenditure group.

Also, any group receiving more than 50 percent of its funding from outside Alaska must state that fact in all public communications. “Strengthening the state’s disclosure requirements will reduce the effect of dark money in Alaska’s elections,” proponents say.

Ensuring candidates get a majority vote

The ballot proposition essentially establishes an open primary with all names listed regardless of political affiliation. People who get the most votes in a ranking can proceed to the general election.

Republican and Democratic primaries would in effect cease to exist with BM 2. There would still be political parties but they would function as booster groups, or clubs, and would no longer be a device to exclude voters through a closed primary election.

Primary elections linked to political parties seems an anachronism in any event, an aging holdover from the Boss Tweed days, and unsuited for a modern, open society. 

“In a nutshell, Ballot Measure 2 would make three changes on how we elect our leaders,” said Robert Dillon, communications director for the BM 2 campaign. “It opens the primary to all voters—regardless of party affiliation; it strengthens disclosure requirements of large donations to candidate campaigns to ensure voters know who is trying to influence their elections; finally, it empowers voters to rank candidates in order of preference in the general election. The aim is to make elections more transparent and increase participation by both voters and candidates.”

A ‘free market’ election system 

Under the current system the candidate who gets the most votes out of a field of several wins in a primary election. It’s quite common that the highest vote-getter does not get the majority of ballots cast if other candidates split the remaining votes.

The ballot measure changes that by creating a ‘free market’ election system that ensures that any winning candidate has the support of the majority of voters. It does this by establishing an instant runoff for any race in which a candidate has not received more than 50 percent of votes.

Because voters are asked to rank their top choices among all names on the ballot the instant runoff eliminates those receiving the fewest votes. “After the first round is eliminated voters who picked that candidate as their first choice have their votes counted instead for their next choice,” the ballot measure reads.

This process continues until the only candidates left are those receiving the most votes, and a candidate finally wins with more than 50 percent support from voters. “This ensures that the eventual winner has the support of the majority of the electorate,” the BM 2 group said in a statement. “Majority rule is better than (just) plurality because it encourages elected officials to represent all of their constituents and not just a small partisan base.” 

The reforms would apply to state legislative, gubernatorial, and statewide congressional races beginning in 2022.

Dillon said these reforms have increased voter participation in other states because it stops the two-party system from restricting who can appear on the ballot. Ranked-choice voting has been done in other states, and 2016 study found ranked-choice voting increased voter turnout by 10 percent.

The counter-argument

Another view of this, however, comes from Mead Treadwell, a former state lieutenant governor who in that capacity was responsible for elections.

“As a guy who oversaw elections (as lieutenant governor) I believe this proposition is a most confusing change for the voters, which is why I joined the ‘No on Two’ campaign,” Treadwell said in an email. “Maine has found that confusion has disenfranchised voters, that many pages of instructions are necessary to explain it,” 

There will be lawsuits if this passes, which will make a bigger mess. Translations into several official languages (required by state law) will be more difficult, he said. 

Treadwell said a system of runoff elections would be much more fair and make people’s choices clear if a 50 percent plus majority is the stated goal.

“There can be cases where the top-ranked candidate loses to a lower ranked candidate who has collected lots of second choice ballots,” he said. 

Treadwell also thinks the dark money argument is overstated. 

“This does not outlaw or expose so-called dark money for initiatives,” he said. “Frankly, some of the provisions of the bill will come up against Free Speech guarantees of the Constitution.”