When voters narrowly passed Ballot Measure 2 in 2020 – which radically transformed Alaska’s voting system – few likely thought about how the new system would affect the ability of political parties to replace candidates. Under the prior system, if the nominee of a political party dropped out or died before the “withdrawal deadline,” their party could choose a replacement candidate. This happened in 2020 when Democrat Adam Lees dropped out of the South Anchorage House race and was replaced with Suzanne LaFrance. LaFrance was defeated in the general election by now-Representative James Kaufman (R – Anchorage).
This year, a chaotic redistricting process has caused district boundaries to shift and created uncertainty about who might be eligible to run for which seats. With only one week before the June 1 filing deadline, many political insiders are still scrambling to find partisan candidates for some legislative races. In the past it was not uncommon for a political party to find a “placeholder” candidate for a race in which no viable candidate had yet stepped forward. Placeholders generally filed but had no intention of actually running; rather, they would step down to make room for a stronger candidate. (Occasionally, placeholders were also used in districts in which a minority party had little chance of winning, on the off chance that the majority party candidate was taken down by a major scandal or other event).
However, under the new voting system, all candidates run in an open primary. Then the top-four advance to a general election in which ranked-choice voting is used to determine the winner. In the big races, like the congressional races or race for governor, there are a lot more than four candidates running in the primary. The special primary election to replace the late Don Young, for example, has 48 candidates. In the new system, if someone drops out after the primary and before the withdrawal deadline, the fifth place finisher in the primary is moved up.
But so far, all of the legislative races have four or fewer candidates, meaning the primary is a de-facto formality. While some legislative races may end up with more than four candidates if additional candidates file in the next week, it is unlikely that many races will significantly change. Therefore, if someone were to drop out or die before the withdrawal deadline, there would be no mechanism to replace them. The result would be one fewer candidate on the ballot. Unsurprisingly, the political parties do not like the new system because it decreases the likelihood that a strong candidate from their party will be on the final ballot.
Tuckerman Babcock, a former chair of the Alaska Republican Party and current State Senate candidate in the Kenai Peninsula, told the Landmine, “This new election system was not well thought out. It’s a consequences of ballot initiatives because they don’t go through the legislative process. There used to be a process where parties chose their nominees, but that is no longer the case. Now if someone drops out of a race and there are four or less candidates, there is no replacement mechanism. This results in less choices, and there is no public benefit to that. It’s a glitch in the system that needs to be fixed. And this is something I will focus on if I am elected to the State Senate.”
Scott Kendall, former Governor Bill Walker’s chief of staff and one of the architects of Ballot Measure 2, has a different take on the new system. “Alaska’s new election system prioritizes the will of the people over the will of the parties. Under the old system, a party candidate could withdraw and a small cadre of party operatives would unilaterally replace them with a person never who had never faced the voters in a primary election. However, if an Independent candidate withdrew, there was no such replacement process in the prior regime,” Kendall told the Landmine.
Lindsay Kavanaugh, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, told the Landmine, “The placeholder strategy that both parties have used in the past was never that effective. It was a tactic that was used if a viable candidate could not be found. It’s definitely preferable to find good candidates before the deadline. My concern is the inability to have a replacement candidate in the event someone cannot legitimately continue their run, such as death or illness. Ballot Measure 2 does not allow for party replacements, and therefore may limit the voter’s options for appropriate representation. I believe that after this cycle, the Legislature will need to revisit Ballot Measure 2 and make appropriate changes.”
In response, Kendall said, “It’s true that under the new system the parties will no longer have the power to hand select candidates and swap them out at the last minute, without voter input. On the other hand, there’s nothing preventing the parties from supporting multiple party candidates running in the primary. That way if their leading candidate withdrew, they could support another. That’s a strategic choice the parties are free to make. They remain powerful forces in Alaska politics, however they are no longer the gatekeepers to the ballot. Hopefully, the new system will continue to encourage many candidates to run (as has happened in the special U.S. House election) and voters will have several diverse options to choose from on their general election ballot. In any event, if ever there was a general election slate where the public felt that the choices were lacking, the option to run as a ‘write-in’ candidate remains.”
It is unclear how the Alaska political parties will adapt to the new system. There is currently no organized effort to change the system, but the outcome of the next election cycle could determine whether or not political parties or other entities push for change.
The candidate filing deadline is June 1 at 5 pm.