early and often

Alaska Struggles With Its Weird New Election System

Trump Senate endorsee Kelly Tshibaka and House endorsee Sarah Palin face each other as they face many opponents in Alaska’s new electoral system. Photo: Mark Thiessen/AP/Shutterstock

What can we do about apathy among registered voters who feel disenfranchised by warring political parties and unaccountable public institutions? In cities and states around the country, reformers have been experimenting for a while with innovative election systems aimed at better reflecting what voters really want. This year Alaska is implementing a unique system that voters themselves approved in a 2020 ballot initiative. It’s arriving early in the form of a special election to fill a vacancy in the state’s one U.S. House seat, which was created when Don Young died suddenly in March.

A big, weird field featuring former governor, vice-presidential nominee, and Dancing Mama Bear Sarah Palin and a man from the city of North Pole named Santa Claus quickly formed for the June 12 special primary. But with early voting starting, voters are just coming to grips with the fact that instead of the traditional major-party primaries to choose general election candidates, they will now vote in a nonpartisan primary in which the top four vote-getters proceed to the general election. While California, Louisiana, and Washington hold top-two primaries, a top-four primary is a new one.

Already Alaska voters, especially the state’s perpetually in-the-minority Democrats, are struggling with the strategic thinking necessary in choosing one primary candidate based on four candidates surviving, as the Anchorage Daily News reports:

There’s an angst gnawing at Alaska’s liberals as they contemplate the special primary election to fill the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term. The feeling isn’t as acute on the right. The left has a smaller share of the Alaska electorate to start with. They feel they can’t afford a split.

On social media you can find them casting about, testing strategic theories and taking each other’s temperature with Twitter polls.

Alaska isn’t a state with a lot of public polling, so there’s a good amount of conjecture (and probably misinformation) going around:

Vote for [independent] Al Gross, some say, because he’s got the best name recognition. Others fret that he won’t capture enough of the Democratic vote …

The far left is drawn to [democratic socialist] Santa Claus, the North Pole City councilman, for his ideological purity. But some question his viability since he isn’t accepting campaign contributions.

Many Democrats like former legislator Mary Peltola but worry labor voters won’t forgive her 2005 vote to cut teacher retirement, which she calls the “biggest regret” of her legislative career.

They also like Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Constant but wonder if he’s got statewide appeal.

And so it goes. What progressive voters fear is squandering their votes and allowing four conservatives to advance.

Palin (who has been endorsed by Donald Trump) and Nick Begich III (the conservative Republican grandson of the Democrat who held the seat before Young) are the two front-runners. After that it gets iffy. But the election will take another big twist after the top four vote-getters are identified: Alaska’s new voting system provides for ranked-choice voting in the general election in order to whittle down the four candidates to one winner. This increasingly popular method (sometimes called “instant-runoff voting”) of letting voters choose secondary candidate preferences that are applied until one candidate gains a majority, is in effect in Maine, New York City, San Francisco, and a scattering of other municipalities. Whatever you think of ranked-choice voting, it takes some serious voter education and adjustment. Right now the key specialist in how a top-four primary and a ranked-choice-voting general election will work together is probably veteran Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, whose own odds of defending Trump-endorsed Republican rival Kelly Tshibaka have been enhanced by the new system.

What makes the transition especially challenging for Alaskans this year is that its first ranked-choice general election (the House special election) occurs on the same day (August 16) as its first regular top four primary. Forty-eight candidates filed to run in the special House election; 26 candidates (sadly, Santa Claus is not among them) also filed to run in the regular House election. So voters will be ranked-choice voting on four candidates the same day they are top-four voting on many of the same candidates for the same office, along with top-four voting on every other office as well. If that confuses you, welcome to the world of Alaska voters in 2022.

Presumably before long the new system will be old hat to Alaskans, a famously independent and sometimes even quirky group of Americans. For their sake and ours, let’s hope they don’t begin their self-education by accidentally sending Sarah Palin to Washington.

More on the Midterms

See All
Alaska Struggles With Its Weird New Election System