Alaska Supreme Court upholds ranked voting, non-partisan primaries
Also, the Legislature gets to work and the redistricting lawsuit nears.
Good evening, Alaska!
Legislative day: 2
In today’s edition: The Alaska Supreme Court upholds the slate of voter-approved election reforms, clearing the way for this year’s state and federal elections to be conducted through an open non-partisan primary and ranked voting; Senate Finance sets some ground rules for the budget complete with some giant novelty checks; Senate President Peter Micciche’s beleaguered alcohol rewrite looks like it has some juice; the House Judiciary Committee gets into a pretty Judiciary Committee-esque hearing about a bill to limit access to some marijuana-related convictions; and, oh, the redistricting lawsuit is right around the corner.
Spice level: 🫑
Good news: Gavel Alaska coverage is now available on cable-cutting televisions thanks to a new app on Roku-enabled devices. Find it here.
Election reforms are here to stay
The day after the Alaska Supreme Court heard a generally muddled challenge against the slate of voter-approved election reforms instituting ranked-choice voting and non-partisan primaries, the court has upheld the law. The order, which was issued this afternoon, clears the way for this year's election to be conducted with a voter-approved system that backers believe will create room for moderate, centrist candidates to compete in an increasingly divided political climate.
"Ballot Measure 2 as passed by the voters is the law," said Scott Kendall, the attorney who worked on the Ballot Measure 2 campaign and argued in front of the Alaska Supreme Court, "and there's no way to change that before election day."
(The Alaska Constitution prohibits the Legislature from repealing or significantly altering voter-approved initiatives for two years following their passage.)
The changes will impact both state and federal races in Alaska, requiring all candidates regardless of political affiliation participate in an open primary with the top four finishers advancing to the general election.
The general election would, then, be conducted with ranked-choice voting where voters can rank as many candidates as they wish. The results would then be tabulated with an instant runoff system where if no candidate has a majority on the first round, the lowest-performing candidate would be eliminated and their votes would be redistributed to the remaining candidates according to those rankings. This process would continue until a candidate either achieves a majority or the most votes once it gets down to two candidates (because voters can opt to not rank some candidates, you can still have a race where no one reaches a majority).
While the changes have been hailed by many as a path toward representation that's more widely acceptable, it's faced stiff opposition by some political parties (the conservative ones) who've argued the system would undermine the political party's role in driving elections. That was the core argument brought by plaintiffs in their case, which ranged from the accusation that communists will run as Republicans to how political party’s associational rights will be infringed if they cannot control who reaches the ballot (something that is not even the case under the previous system).
Both Laura Fox, the state’s attorney, and Kendall argued that the voters should be able to dictate how elections are run, arguing that some of the remedies suggested by the challengers were not supported by law and, in some extreme cases, would bar non-partisan candidates—like former independent Gov. Bill Walker, who's running for election this year—from running for election.
Today's order is not a full order explaining the Supreme Court's rationale for its decision. A full order is expected at a later date.
Why it matters: While the oral arguments were what could charitably be described as a mess, there seemed to be some concern the briefings could carry more weight. That was particularly the case for the briefings brought by former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Dick Randolph (and authored by Craig Richards) that argued the new system was a violation of the Alaska Constitution’s requirement for lieutenant governors to be selected through a nominating process. Fox argued against this interpretation, noting the nomination process was still in place even though candidates for governor will be pairing up with lieutenant governor candidates ahead of the primary because the primary will still be a test of the whole ticket. The court seems to have agreed.
With challenges to election reforms essentially settled, it means that this year’s elections will be conducted with the open primary and a ranked-voting general election. This will be a particularly big deal for centrist Republican candidates—like, say, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski—who would otherwise be going into long-shot partisan primaries. This provides a path for candidates like Murkowski, independent former Gov. Bill Walker and even many moderate Republican legislators to try to run it back in races that would otherwise dead end in at the primary.
New year, old beefs
It’s no secret that the Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee and overseer of the budget, is not a big fan of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the administration’s tendency to offer up only the most flattering and politically expedient pictures of the state’s financial position. Stedman’s also not a fan of the governor’s plans to overspend the Alaska Permanent Fund or smooth over deficits with one-time money, calling them efforts to shortchange future generations or hide the true state of the Alaska’s budget. In the height of last year’s frustrations, Stedman suggested that the Legislature may take the unusual step of just ignoring the governor’s requests.