As partisan warfare has become the norm in state legislatures and Congress, Alaska is about to embark on an experiment to see if voters themselves can disarm fighters.
A new electoral system, narrowly adopted by voters in 2020 and set to be used in this year’s races, aims to get candidates to appeal to a wide range of voters beyond their traditional base. The system would end party primaries and send the top four voters, regardless of party affiliation, to the general election, where ranked voting would determine a winner.
The model is unique among states and seen by supporters as a way to encourage civility and cooperation among elected officials. One of the initiative’s sponsors, former Republican-turned-independent state legislator Jason Grenn, called Alaska a test case “in a major way” for similar efforts being considered in other states, including Nevada. .
He said the new system will reward candidates who want to work with others, regardless of party affiliation, and voters will be “empowered in a different way”.
“We’re thrilled that Alaska can lead the way in something that we think is truly monumental in changing the way voters act and candidates act in our political system,” Grenn said.
For the changes to take effect, they must survive a challenge in the Alaska Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on Tuesday.
Critics challenge the constitutionality of the measure and claim it would dilute the power of political parties. Last year, a state court judge upheld the new system.
This year’s midterm ballot will feature races for the U.S. Senate, the state’s only seat in the House of Representatives and U.S. governor. And under a new redistricting plan that is also the subject of litigation, all but one of the 60 seats in the legislature are up for grabs. All will be subject to electoral reforms if the High Court authorizes them.
Scott Kendall, an attorney who helped draft the ballot initiative, said working across party lines appears to be part of Alaska’s “political DNA.” He cited as an example the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who once said that his motto during his decades in Congress had been “to hell with politics; just do what’s good for Alaska. One of the state’s current U.S. senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski, is also known for her ability to work with Democrats on certain issues and sometimes thwart her own party.
Kendall said he sees the potential for new legislative alliances and coalitions within the system and that these will become more of the norm. A reliable Republican or Democratic district is unlikely to topple, but the type of lawmaker elected to represent that district could become more collaborative, he said.
“I think it’s actually going to punish people when they’re filibustering just to filibuster,” he said.
Harlow Robinson, a self-identified non-partisan, said he was not heavily involved in politics but had volunteered to support the campaign for the election initiative. The Anchorage resident said partisanship has made government in general “dysfunctional” and hopes the new system will provide some common ground.
He said he likes the idea of coalition governance. But he said there’s nothing wrong with Republican or Democratic majorities “as long as those elected officials are willing to compromise and represent the greatest number of Alaskans.”
Alaska lawmakers have a history of crossing party lines to form majorities in the state House or Senate, unlike most other states where the majority party governs with little or no input from members. of the minority party. Between 1993 and 2016, ruling majorities generally favored Republicans, sometimes heavily, according to a Legislative Research Services report. The state’s rural Democrats have often joined majorities to ensure their constituents’ needs are heard.
An exception to the Republican hold on power occurred between 2007 and 2012, a period that included a 10-10 split between Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate, the adoption of a new system of taxing the oil under the government of the day. Sarah Palin and a windfall of oil revenue. At that time, Democrats held an advantage in majority coalitions alongside no less than six Republicans.
In 2013, after Republicans regained control of the House and with Republicans leading the House and in the Governor’s office, oil taxes were reversed. Since then, majorities in the Senate have been largely Republican.
As lawmakers grappled with deficits following a slump in oil prices, longstanding Republican-led control of the House gave way, beginning in 2017, to a series of majorities of coalition composed mainly of Democrats, even though the Republicans were elected by the majority of seats. The number of Republicans who have served in coalitions, however, has fallen from eight in 2019 to just two in the current legislature.
The House has struggled after the past two election cycles to organize a majority, similar to the political dynamics playing out in other countries. This has made governance difficult – for example, the chamber took a month to elect a president in 2019 and almost as much last year.
Republicans who have joined Democrats and Independents in a coalition in recent years have faced backlash within their party. Many of them were censored, labeled as defectors or lost primaries.
Grenn, who served one term in the Legislature, said the party’s primaries for the past four years have been used as a “weapon” to punish lawmakers who have worked in a bipartisan fashion or fail to vote in line with their platform. -form of party. The new electoral system would foster collaboration, he said.
“Now…instead of worrying about my primary and having someone pass me right or left, now I can think of good politics because I will be rewarded for it,” he said. .
Former Alaska State Senate President Cathy Giessel plans to run for the Senate again this year after losing a Republican primary in 2020. The Reason We Lost Reelection.
Giessel initially opposed electoral reforms and worried about ranked voting, a system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference and a consensus winner is selected if no one wins more than 50% of the top picks. . Giessel said his concerns eased after learning more about the system, which has also been used in Maine.
Giessel said she thinks the open primary “is more specifically going to result in a representative republic form of government in Alaska.”
Lance Pruitt, a Republican who narrowly lost his Anchorage House seat to a Democrat in 2020, wonders if the new process will play out the way supporters believe.
“The reality is that if it was a solution and everything was going to be fine and everything got along well and in the middle, then the redistricting wouldn’t be an issue. There would be no trial,” he said. “There is always a recognition that you have people leaning left, right. They have a temper, even if they say, “I’m independent.”
“It’s a very small number of people who are influenced in every election.”