A Guide to Alaska's Ballot Measure on Election Reforms

Jeannette Lee :: Sightline Institute

Alaska voters will decide on a slate of democracy reforms in November. On the ballot is a proposal that aims to fix several of the electoral system’s nagging imperfections, including candidates who win without majority support, the hidden influence of anonymous donors, and perverse incentives that reward partisanship over constructive public policy. The proposal is a citizen’s initiative called Ballot Measure 2, or the Better Elections Initiative. More than 36,000 Alaskans across the state supported its addition to the 2020 ballot.

If voters say yes, Ballot Measure 2 would change Alaska’s election laws in the following three ways: 1) introducing open top-four primaries; 2) using ranked choice general election ballots in statewide and national races, and; 3) stripping campaign donors of their anonymity.

Using Ranked Choice Voting in General Elections

If Ballot Measure 2 succeeds, voters would be able to rank candidates in general elections from most- to least-favorite starting in 2022. Ranked choice voting has been used in certain jurisdictions in the US and Europe, as well as in Australia Senate elections for over 100 years, and is gaining favor. The state of Maine and more than a dozen cities in the lower 48 use ranked choice voting to give voters more voice and select majority winners. Some Alaskans already have experience with ranked ballots: The Democratic Party used the system during its 2020 presidential primary . Massachusetts voters are also considering whether to use ranked choice voting in their elections.

So how does it work? Instead of being restricted to a binary choice for a single candidate, voters are free to vote based on their true feelings about multiple candidates. They rank their favorite as number one, their second favorite as number two, and so on. The candidate with more than half the first-place votes wins. If no candidate has more than 50 percent, the ballots for the candidate in last place are reallocated to voters’ second choices. The process continues until a candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold.

Could a ballot measure deliver ranked choice voting to Alaska? Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy .

In considering whether to support Ballot Measure 2, voters might ask themselves what they do and do not like about the current election system in Alaska. No voting system is absolutely perfect, but some systems are better than others at upholding American norms of democracy. Based on our research, ranked choice voting is better than the more prevalent winner-takes-all system at strengthening democracy by moderating the divisive nature of two-party politics; rewarding candidates who win over a majority of voters; increasing voter choice; and improving turnout.

Ranked choice voting tends to have the following benefits:

Campaigns may become less polarized. Ranked choice voting incentivizes candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters beyond their bases. Unless the majority of voters in a district are heavily partisan, smart campaigning in a ranked choice system requires an appeal to moderate voters who will give the candidate a second or even third-place ranking, depending on the size of the field. To that end, candidates benefit from NOT alienating fans of their opponents. In 2014, a poll by Rutgers-Eagleton showed residents in cities that used ranked choice voting believed their candidates behaved more civilly than candidates in cities using conventional voting methods.

The playing field becomes more level for candidates from underrepresented groups. A study by the democracy advocacy group Represent Women found that typical winner-take-all elections disadvantage women, particularly women of color. Their research shows that incumbent advantage, high campaign costs, and negative campaigns, while tough on all candidates, disproportionately hurts females running for office. On the other hand, the use of ranked choice voting correlates with representation that more closely matches the demographics of America’s increasingly diverse voter population.

No candidate can win with less than half the vote. Since 2014, eight statewide elections in Alaska resulted in candidates winning with support from less than half of voters. That included the 2014 governor’s and U.S. Senate races, the 2016 U.S. Senate race, and a handful of state House races. Ranked choice voting allows for an “instant runoff” between the top candidates, until one receives more than half the votes. This means an extremist can’t slide into office thanks to vote-splitting between two similar candidates and the winner is someone that more than half of voters can get behind.

Voters can choose less-popular candidates without throwing away their vote. Third-party and other candidates can run in ranked choice elections without worrying about diverting votes from more mainstream candidates. Voters will have less cause to worry about “wasting” their votes by voting for these candidates. If less popular candidates are eliminated, the votes will then be reallocated. Even if they don’t win, including independent and third-party candidates in the race can broaden the debate and bring attention to issues that would otherwise be ignored. And because voters can choose them without fearing the results, Alaskans will be able to see how much support independents and third-parties really have.

Candidates from parties outside the mainstream can enter races more easily. In Alaska, the Republican and Democrat parties play highly influential roles in determining who gets on the ballot in the primary and, by extension, the general elections. Ballot Measure 2 removes the gatekeeping power of political parties and allows anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to enter a primary. The top four winners would advance to the general election.

Voter turnout improves. A study of elections in 26 cities linked ranked choice voting to a 10 percent increase in turnout compared to regular elections. Voters who have more confidence that their preferences matter are generally more motivated to participate in an election. Interestingly, ranked choice voting tends to be more effective in bringing voters to the polls than typical get-out-the-vote efforts.

Voters transition easily to the new system. Ranked choice voting is easy to understand and voters have little trouble switching over. As an example, imagine a contest in which Alaskans rank their favorite seafood. A voter gives her first place vote to King Crab, second to Salmon, and third to Halibut. In the initial vote tally, no seafood gets more than half the votes. In addition, King Crab comes in third and is therefore eliminated. But the voter still has a say when it comes to the remaining contenders. Because she ranked Salmon second, it gets her vote. Salmon eventually attracts enough votes to go over 50 percent and wins the contest.

What the measure would do

Ballot Measure 2 changes Alaska statute to accommodate ranked choice elections. Key updates include addressing how election workers should handle ballots from voters who deviate from the standard method of ranked choice voting. For instance, if a voter gives two candidates the same ranking, the ballot is considered inactive once the duplicate rankings are encountered. (If a voter ranks a candidate first and the next two candidates second, the first place vote still counts, unless that candidate is eliminated.) Or, if a voter skips a ranking, their next ranking will still count, but two skipped rankings mean the ballot is inactive.

Lessons from Maine

If the measure passes, Alaska could become the second state after Maine to adopt ranked choice voting. (Or tie for second, as it’s also on the ballot in Massachusetts.) Maine voters opted for ranked choice voting in 2016 for statewide primary and congressional general elections and held its first ranked choice election in 2018. Despite numerous political and legal challenges, voters in Maine defended ranked choice voting. When the Legislature attempted to repeal the system, it was blocked by a “people’s veto,” a petition signed by more than 80,000 Maine residents. Most of Maine’s electorate has adjusted to the new system. A 2018 survey by the Maine chapter of the League of Women Voters found that 90 percent of Maine voters considered ranked choice voting a positive experience.

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