In 2020, Alaskans voted to radically change the way elections are run in the state. Ballot Measure 2, narrowly passed by voters, eliminated party primaries and instituted a new system called ranked-choice voting (RCV). This year Alaskans will face a different election from any they have seen before and different from just about every election in the country. Are they ready? How will ranked-choice affect Alaska’s elections?
The answer to that first question is a straightforward “Yes,” according to Alaska’s Division of Election Director Gail Fenumiai, “Administering the election isn’t going to be that difficult.” The State won’t need any extra personnel and, other than purchasing some new software for “ballot tabulation,” everything the Division of Elections needs to run a smooth election, they already have.
“Nothing has changed with our election procedures. It’ll be the same process we used in 2020 and every election before that,” Fenumiai said in a February phone interview. “Chain of custody for the ballots, the way votes are collected and counted, the only thing that’s going to change are how the ballots look in the primary and the general. The ballot initiative didn’t change the election process.”
Others are less certain and feel that more needs to be done to make sure that Alaska is prepared. Especially to ensure that voters understand what it is they’re going to be asked to do this year. The recent passing of Representative Don Young makes this all the more pressing.
The second question is a bit more complicated to answer. Ranked-choice voting is still relatively new, not yet very common, and, well, Alaska is different.
Alaska’s new election law
The 2020 ballot measure was designed to do three things: enhance Alaska’s campaign disclosure rules, ditch partisan primaries, and institute ranked-choice voting. The latter two provisions are the ones directly affecting the elections.
This year, Democrats and Republicans in Alaska will not choose their nominees in separate primaries — which limited who could vote and forced voters to pick one primary ballot. In this year’s “jungle primary” all candidates run in one primary and voters choose one candidate for each office. The top-four in each race then advance to the general election. Instead of one Democrat and one Republican (along with possibly an Alaska Independence Party [the only other recognized party in Alaska] candidate or others who secured enough signatures to get on the ballot), the general election will be between the four candidates with the most votes in the primary, regardless of party.
In the general election, rather than voting for just one of the four, voters will have the option to rank all four choices. If any candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, they win. If no candidate gets more than 50%, then the ranked-choice process begins. The candidate with the fewest first choice votes gets removed, and the second choice votes from all those ballots get added to the other three candidates totals, and the votes are counted again until someone emerges with more than 50%.
If this sounds complicated, there are many who agree and feel that Alaskans aren’t ready for this.
Ranked-choice before Alaska
While still unknown to most Americans, there are plenty of voters around the country with experience in ranked-choice voting that Alaskans can, perhaps, look to for guidance. “Nearly half of the states have some form of ranked-choice on the ballot or in the legislature,” said Rob Ritchie, Executive Director of FairVote, the national organization promoting RCV; over fifty cities and counties and political organizations use some variation of ranked-choice voting, including places as different as New York, California, Utah, Minnesota, Oregon and North Carolina. Even the Academy Awards uses ranked-choice voting, since 2009, to select the Oscar for Best Picture (which, depending on your opinion of past winning films, could be construed as an argument for or against the wisdom of ranked-choice).
The only other state to implement ranked-choice voting is Maine, the first state in the country to adopt it. Maine’s story could be instructive for Alaska in several ways.
First, although Maine voters approved RCV in a 2016 referendum, it faced numerous legal and partisan challenges before final implementation. Second, RCV was bogged down for almost a year by lawsuits and then Republicans managed to pass a bill to delay it in the Maine State Legislature. It took another voter referendum in 2018 to overturn the Legislature, but the Maine State Supreme Court still had to rule in favor of it in order for the process to finally go ahead.
If conversations with several leading Alaska Republican strategists, as well a recent legal challenge at the Alaska Supreme Court, are any indication, the future of RCV in Alaska is not yet certain.
One Alaska Republican, who has managed multiple state-wide campaigns and worked for several high-profile candidates and elected officials but did not want to go on the record, said bluntly that “RCV was supported by the left. Of course, they’ll have an advantage.”
“It distorts the party identity,” said another long-time Republican consultant, similarly asking for anonymity. “Anyone can run as anything and the parties can’t say anything.”
Aside from the two year political battle to finally institute RCV in Maine, managing a state-wide ranked-choice election posed difficulties by itself.
“The law didn’t anticipate logistics,” explained Maine’s State Auditor Matt Dunlap by phone. Dunlap was Maine secretary of state, the equivalent of Alaska’s lieutenant governor when it comes to elections, during Maine’s first ranked-choice election. “Not every town has vote tabulating machines. And about 35% them are small towns, smaller than 500 people. Having expensive machines for such small places isn’t feasible.” The state ended up using a bonded courier system to maintain chain-of-custody for ballots and using “a simple sorting mechanism” to process ballots. One of the most important things for Alaskan election officials, says Dunlap, “Is to have a logistical plan that anticipates what will go wrong.”
“There will be lawsuits from campaigns who think you didn’t count or process right.” — Matt Dunlap, Maine State Auditor
Additionally, for all the hubbub about the revolutionary change that RCV represents, ranked-choice elections don’t actually happen that often. The ranked-choice process only triggers if any candidate doesn’t get more than 50%, so it’s likely that some elections in Alaska this year will not be affected by RCV. According to Dan Shea, Chair of the Government Studies Department at Colby College in Maine, “you expect a vote to go to ranked-choice process but if someone gets more than 50% of the vote and…it’s over. There can be a lot of excitement and speculation and punditry but sometimes it’s just anticlimactic.”
Of course, Shea added, that while ranked-choice elections are “usually anticlimactic” that on “the occasions where it goes to ranked-choice…well, I hope your election officials are prepared. Mark my words, there’s going to be consternation.”
That consternation will extend to many of Alaska’s political operatives and news industry because, explained Shea, “It’s very hard to poll in ranked-choice races.” Polling in Alaska is already difficult, any political junkies looking for insight on certain races and campaign managers seeking reassurance will be disappointed by what polling firms can provide in a ranked-choice environment.
“We have done the most polling in any place that has ranked-choice voting,” said Shea. His advice for Alaskan pollsters is, “It’s not going to be cheap. You’re going to want to oversample. You’re going to poll 1,000 people just for the opinions of 50. The margin of error goes through the roof.”
Finally, Alaskans may see a bit more congeniality between candidates than normal. “Voters in Maine have seen less negative campaigning,” said Kyle Bailey of Ranked Choice Maine, “Especially at the local level. There’s definitely a lot of cross-endorsements. Plenty of ‘make me your second choice’ messaging.” In one Senate race, Bailey noted, “The Democrats were sending Green Party voters mailers explaining RCV.”
This is one of the explicit designs of the ranked-choice system and it seems to be working, said professor Shea, echoing Bailey’s observations. “There’s a lot of moderating in the last few weeks of the race. Many campaigns decide to reach out to those 3rd and 4th groups with ‘We know we’re not your first choice, but we can be your second.’ messaging.” Even if a candidate can draw a guaranteed 40% of the vote from their partisan base, they can never make up the difference to 50% if they are “toxic enough to be the last choice of the other 3 groups of voters.”
On the other hand, things haven’t changed that much said Jacob Stern, communications director for the Maine Democratic Party. “Every race is different. In some cases, there is an unfortunate need for negativity in politics.” And regardless of any tone-shifts or second-choice strategies, “Any candidate running in a close RCV runoff race should have lawyers ready.”
There is also no empirical evidence for any of the positive changes yet, said Jesse Clark, of the MIT Election Lab. In fact, his research “found that negative spending increased significantly in Maine following the implementation of ranked-choice voting.” Perhaps most worryingly, “RCV produced significantly lower levels of voter confidence, voter satisfaction, and ease of use.”
Curiously, and optimistically for ranked-choice proponents, both Clark’s analysis and one done by the free market R Street Institute, simultaneously concluded that voters in Maine had little problems understanding the system.
This is the part of RCV that distresses Alaska politicos most.
An informed choice
Alaskans don’t understand ranked choice, said Ken Jacobus, an Anchorage lawyer who recently represented an effort to overturn the ranked-choice law before the Alaska State Supreme Court. Voters were sold something that wasn’t explained to them, according to Jacobus. “All of the campaigning centered on the campaign disclosures, the anti-corruption side,” said Jacobus, “there was very little emphasis or discussion around ranked-choice.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Les Gara said over the phone that he shares the concern, “The money has to be put into educating voters, both by the state and the campaign.” He’s not sure if the voters understand how elections were changed by the 2020 ballot measure because, Gara said, “The folks who passed ranked-choice ran on the campaign disclosure part of the bill, not ranked-choice.”
“There is a moral obligation by the people who spent millions of dollars to pass this to tell people how it works. They need to spend just as much money to explain it to us.” — Les Gara, Democratic gubernatorial candidate
“Of course Alaskans understand it. They voted for it,” said Jason Grenn, Executive Director of Alaskans for Better Elections, the group that supported Ballot Measure 2 and is continuing to educate the public about it. Still, he acknowledged that “anything that’s new, it takes them hearing and seeing something a few times before they get it.”
This is why, says Grenn, “There’s outreach going on in every area of the state but we know that we have a lot of work to do.” Alaskans for Better Elections, he said, has been working with the state, Rotary Clubs, community councils, and Native organizations to educate the electorate.
“We offer presentations and videos and infographics to citizens groups and nonprofits; we write op-eds, train legislators, city assemblies and economic development corporations.” They sponsored information booths at Salmon Fest and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference and presented at the Tanana Chiefs conference. “Alaska is a big state and we have a lot of work to do, off the-road-system, and it’s a priority.”
Such outreach may be crucial in the Bush, suggested Jean Craciun, a researcher with over thirty years experience in Alaska. A series of focus groups she conducted with Alaska Natives late last year, on unrelated subjects, may have revealed skepticism or mistrust of ranked-choice voting. “Some of them worried it [RCV] is just another way to disenfranchise them,” Craciun said by phone from Seattle, “that the Bush votes will count for even less than they already do.”
Head of The Diversity Center of Washington, Craciun stresses that “looking at [ranked-choice voting] through a DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) lens hasn’t been done. The research isn’t there.”
Ivan Moore runs one of Alaska’s oldest public research firms. He also suspects that voters don’t really understand ranked-choice voting. At least not right now. However, he expects this to change because it is in the interest of the candidates to educate their voters. “I think they will eventually understand because the campaigns and parties will ensure that their people will know what they’re doing,” Moore said in a phone interview, “I think the state is also obligated to manage an education campaign.”
Les Gara concurred, saying that his campaign is “trying to educate with mailers we send out but I don’t know if other campaigns are doing that.”
Art Hackney, a long-time political consultant who owns Art Hackney Communications, agreed that educating the voters will be important – if the race calls for it. “Some races you need to push the second vote messaging, for others it may be smart to tell your voters not to make a second choice.”
Some candidates, Hackney said during a phone interview, have already copied Senator Susan Collins’ (R – Maine) successful strategy in her last ranked-choice race. “For instance, [GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Kurka] is already instructing his voters not to cast a second choice. To deny another candidate those ‘extra’ votes. In Maine, Collins got elected the same way, telling voters to only vote for Susan.”
Maine’s state auditor stresses that it is essential for Alaska to “Have a robust communication system with the voters during the tabulation period. It’s really important to let the voters know, in real time, what’s going on.”
Which Gail Fenumiai said Alaska is ready for. “There will be regular communication after the election between the Division [of Elections] and the public about the process.” She said, “Logistically, technologically, the Division is prepared. The focus is outreach.”
The Director said that the state is aggressively getting the word out about ranked-choice voting. “I wouldn’t say that we have no challenges but the outreach to the public is a huge task, a huge undertaking. Administering the election isn’t going to be that difficult. We’re focusing on getting the word out to the general public and explaining how they’re going to be voting this year so that they understand it. The more they hear about it, talk about it, and see about it, the more they’ll understand how it works.”
Director Fenumiai encourages any Alaskans with questions about this year’s elections and the ranked-choice process to visit the Division of Elections website where there is an instructional video and FAQ.
Thomas Brown is a writer and history teacher. He lived and worked in Alaska for 11 years, where he worked for the Alaska Legislature and Craciun Research Group. He currently resides in Los Angeles. You can read his other work on Medium.