xidingiłq’oyh | catalyze

Alaska’s ranked-choice system could boost Indigenous voting

Undeclared and nonpartisan voters—who make up most of the state’s voters—have been left out of the partisan primary system
Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan)

laska’s move to a ranked-choice voting system starting with the 2022 elections will give voters a stronger voice in final election decisions and could shift the power base from partisan fringes to moderate voters.

The new balloting system will eliminate partisan primary elections, boosting the chances for middle-of-the-road candidates such as Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has faced challenges from the right wing of her party.

“More choice, more voice, and more power to voters,” according to a statement by the nonprofit Alaskans for Better Elections on its website.

“Our new ‘Alaska Style Elections’ will change how we elect our leaders and can encourage politicians—regardless of party—to work together on solutions that represent the will of the people,” the organization stated. “After all, elections are for voters, not politicians.”

Tribal leaders in Alaska said the new system could increase participation among Indigenous voters by making them more aware of the process. Tribes are working with the state to help spread the word about ranked-choice voting and how it will work.

Voting sticker ARTWORK BY Barbara Lavallee
Voting sticker ARTWORK BY Barbara Lavallee
Voting sticker ARTWORK BY Barbara Lavallee
Voting sticker ARTWORK BY Barbara Lavallee

“This is a significant step forward for voting rights in Alaska,” said Edward Alexander, co-chair for the Gwich’in Council International, which represents 9,000 Gwich’in in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska, and the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.

“This will impact elections,” he said. “We have not had a majority vote for our Alaska senators since 2002. It really is model legislation. It speaks volumes that it was passed by the Alaska voter initiative. This will help eliminate the impact of dark money and the hyper partisanship environment that we’ve seen recently.”

In November 2020, Alaska voters narrowly approved the new system, joining Maine as the only other state at the time to expand voters’ choices.

Although the system has been used for decades in Australia and Ireland, it is relatively new to the United States.

Maine approved the measure in 2018 and used ranked-choice for the first time in its November 2020 election. It does not use ranked-choice for the gubernatorial or state legislative races, which the Maine Supreme Judicial Court concluded must be determined by a plurality vote.

San Francisco began using the ranked-choice system for its 2018 mayoral race, and New York City approved its use for municipal elections in time for this year’s mayoral race.

Alaska will be using ranked-choice voting starting with the 2022 elections, a move that could shift the balance of power from partisan primaries to undeclared and nonpartisan voters. Under the new system, partisan primaries will be replaced with an open primary for all voters, and voters can rank their preference for candidates in the general election. (Photo illustration courtesy of the Alaska Division of Elections)

First Alaskans Institute President/CEO Elizabeth La quen naay/Kat Saas Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit)
left: Tribal leaders say ranked choice voting may give greater voice to Indigenous voters in Alaska.
right: First Alaskans Institute President/CEO Elizabeth La quen naay/Kat Saas Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit).
Tribal leaders say ranked choice voting may give greater voice to Indigenous voters in Alaska
Tribal leaders say ranked choice voting may give greater voice to Indigenous voters in Alaska.
First Alaskans Institute President/CEO Elizabeth La quen naay/Kat Saas Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit)
First Alaskans Institute President/CEO Elizabeth La quen naay/Kat Saas Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit).

In Alaska, the system will be used for legislative races and all statewide races, including governor, U.S. Senate and congressional races. It will not apply to city elections. The next round of elections will be in November 2022.

“We now have an electoral system that lives up to Alaska’s independent streak by saying ‘to hell with politics, let’s do what’s right for Alaska,” said Shea Siegert, the campaign manager for the Yes on 2 for Better Elections group that supported the measure, in a statement released after the election.

“This is a victory for all Alaskans regardless of their political leaning,” said Siegert, who is now director of external affairs for Alaskans for Better Elections.

How it works

Instead of holding separate primary elections for Republicans and Democrats, Alaska will hold an open primary for all candidates, regardless of political affiliation.

Alaska approved a “top four” system, meaning the top four candidates in the primary will advance to the general election. Maine, in contrast, has a “top two” system, with the top two candidates advancing.

Then ranked-choice voting kicks. In both states, voters in the general election will rank the candidates in order of preference, starting with their first choice and following with as many other candidates as they choose to rank.

When the votes are tallied, a winner is declared outright only if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote—meaning 50 percent, plus 1 vote.

If no candidate wins the majority, the culling process begins. The candidate with the fewest first-place rankings is thrown out, and those votes shift to the voters’ second-choice candidates. The process continues until a candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote.

Ranked-choice voting has drawn support across the political spectrum. In an article, “Fixing U.S. Politics” in the July–August 2020 edition of the Harvard Business Review, authors Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter outline a number of proposals to strengthen the American election systems, including a provision for ranked-choice voting in general elections.

“Amid the unprecedented partisanship and gridlock in Washington, D.C., Congress appears locked in a permanent battle, incapable of delivering results,” the article begins. “It seems to many Americans—and to the rest of the world—that our political system is so irrational and dysfunctional that it’s beyond repair.”

Gehl and Porter co-authored a book, “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy,” published by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2020. Gehl is the former chief executive of Gehl Foods and the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation. Porter is a professor at the Harvard Business School in Boston.

In the article, they propose a “top five” system for primaries that would allow the top five candidates to advance to a general election. The ranked-choice system would then be used in the general election to ensure that the winner received more than 50 percent of the vote. Now, only a plurality is typically needed, meaning the winner may have drawn support of only a third or so of voters.

“There is no greater threat to American economic competitiveness and social progress—no greater threat to the combination of free-market economics and liberal democracies that has delivered more human advancements than any other system—than our passive acceptance of a failed political system,” they conclude.

“Our people’s voices will be heard, and all of our villages are going have more of a voice in the election process.”
Edward Alexander
Gwich’in Council International

Getting the word out

Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections, said the state will is launching an educational campaign to make the public aware of the new system and how it works.

“The division is working really hard to provide a statewide educational program to get materials out to all voters in Alaska,” Fenumiai said. “We want everyone to be well-versed in the new process before going to cast their ballot. We want people to understand all of the tools available to educate them concerning how the tabulation round works.

“It is going to be very different,” she said.

Materials will be made in several Alaska Native languages and other non-English languages spoken throughout Alaska. The Alaska Division of Elections has partnered with local and regional Tribes to help accomplish that objective.

A video is already available to help voters understand ranked-choice voting, and a sample ballot with additional information is available on the Division of Elections website.

“We are expecting to connect to voters, especially those who don’t have access to the Internet, using radio, posters, and such,” Fenumiai said.

Another significant challenge will be managing expectations. A candidate who leads in early election results, for example, may not be the final winner, if he or she garners enough second-choice votes to push them over the top.

“This alone is different and very important for the division to explain to people,” Fenumiai said, “so they remain confident in the electoral process.”

Looking ahead

The end result may be diminished importance on party affiliation. In Alaska, for example, the largest group of voters includes nonpartisan and undeclared voters.

The Alaska Division of Elections voter registration statistics show 149,173 voters are registered Republicans, 81,355 Democrats, and 19,109 Independence Party. Those without party affiliation include 186,207 undeclared and 85,472 nonpartisan.

The election to approve the ranked-choice voting drew opposition, but the measure passed with about 50.5 percent of the vote. Another provision of the bill aimed at reducing the use of so-called “dark money” will require greater financial disclosure by groups donating to campaigns.

Brett Huber, who led a group opposing the measure, told the Anchorage Daily News that the opposition had “a short amount of time and a lot less money, and we tried our best.”

Supporters say the new system will help politicians work together.

“These reforms were designed to take back the power of our elections,” the Alaskans for Better Elections states on its website. “We need an election system that encourages politicians to work for voters—not parties.”

Alexander, the co-chair of the Gwich’in Council International, said he is looking forward to using ranked-choice voting.

“Rank-choice voting will help make Alaska elections serve us again,” Alexander said. “Our people’s voices will be heard, and all of our villages are going have more of a voice in the election process.”

Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan) is writer and playwright with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Richard can be reached at richardperry770@gmail.com.

This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2021. https://indiancountrytoday.com.