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The ranked choice voting system that has shaken Alaska politics will face a nationwide test in November


Campaign buttons calling on Alaskans to abolish ranked-choice voting in Alaska sit on a picnic table at the home of Phil Izon, a supporter of the initiative, in Wasilla, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska's new electoral system, with open primaries and ranked-choice voting, is serving as a model for those in other states frustrated by political polarization and a sense that voters lack a real choice at the ballot box.

The changes, which were first applied in 2022, helped the first Alaska Native win a seat in Congress. But they could be short-lived.

Opponents of ranked choice voting want to abolish it and are embroiled in a legal battle over whether their initiative can remain on Alaska's ballot in November. It's just one example of a battle intensifying this year over a more comprehensive way for voters to choose candidates. The fight is driven in part by deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and resistance from political parties and partisan groups that fear losing power.

In at least two states — Oregon and Nevada, which lean Democratic — voters will decide this fall whether to adopt new voting policies that include ranked-choice voting. In deeply conservative Idaho, groups are pushing for a November referendum that would overturn a ban on ranked-choice voting passed last year by the Republican-led legislature. Measures proposing ranked-choice voting, also known as “ranked-choice voting,” are also being pursued in Colorado and the District of Columbia.

In Missouri, the GOP-controlled legislature will ask voters in November whether to ban ranked-choice voting, following an unsuccessful attempt by citizens in 2022 to put a system modeled on Alaska before voters. At least nine states have banned ranked-choice voting, and the Louisiana legislature also passed a ban last week.

The attempts to introduce a new procedure for electing politicians and the resistance of the established rulers are a sign of dissatisfaction with the country's politics and concern about the future of democracy, says AJ Simmons, research director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield, who wrote an article on the subject.

“We have this group of frustrated, concerned people looking for a solution to the problems they see,” he said. “At least some of them have come up with the idea that maybe this problem is caused by how we select our leaders.”

Only two states use ranked-choice voting — Maine for its primary and federal elections, and Alaska for state and federal general elections. Many U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis, use ranked-choice voting, while Portland, Oregon, plans to adopt it in the fall. A years-long pilot program in Utah allows cities there to hold local elections using ranked-choice voting.

Proponents view ranked-choice voting as a more inclusive process that offers voters greater choice and reduces negative campaigning because candidates need a coalition of supporters to succeed.

In Alaska, ranked-choice voting counts votes in rounds: A candidate can win outright in the first round of counting if he or she receives more than 50% of the vote. If no one reaches that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate as their favorite have their votes counted toward their next election. Rounds continue until two candidates remain, and then the one with the most votes wins.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which ranked-choice voting changes the electoral system because systems often vary from place to place, making comparisons difficult, Simmons said.

Alaska has a primary system in which the four candidates with the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election, which uses ranked-choice voting. Nevada and Idaho's proposals are similar, while Oregon would keep its primaries closed and limit ranked-choice voting to federal and major statewide races, including that of governor.

It is unclear whether ranked-choice voting is an effective way to combat voter fatigue and disenchantment, but many are open to the idea.

“I believe in the marketplace of ideas, and when there isn't real competition, the opportunity for people to really debate and get really good answers because one side just doesn't have to pay attention, we suffer. So if ranked-choice voting helps with that, that's great,” said Brett DeLange, an Idaho voter who is retired as an assistant attorney general.

While Oregon's proposal was pushed by the Democratic-led legislature, in many cases the party in power opposes ranked-choice voting because it creates uncertainty in election results.

Idaho Republicans, who control the legislature and hold all state offices, have attacked the state's proposed citizen initiative on ranked-choice voting. State Republican Party Chairwoman Dorothy Moon called it “a malicious plot to take away your ability to elect conservative representatives.”

A state legislator tried unsuccessfully to block the initiative by proposing an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that would limit all elections to a single ballot; the state's Attorney General, Raul Labrador, lost a lawsuit brought by the initiative's supporters for giving it a biased title.

In the District of Columbia, the Democratic Party unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the proposed ranked choice voting initiative, claiming, among other things, that it violated the city's charter, which requires that senior officials be elected on a partisan basis.

Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada who supports the ranked-choice initiative in her state, has closely watched the system in Alaska. She said many voters feel the political parties have too much control and don't feel like they have a real choice.

“Some races have just one person, other races have 15 people all yelling crazy things. And my students are wondering, 'Why can't we have something in between?'” said Cosgrove, who is also executive director of the nonprofit civic group Vote Nevada.

In Alaska, advocates on both sides of the ranked-choice voting debate point to the success of Democrat Mary Peltola two years ago, defeating former governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, both Republicans, in special and regular elections for the state's only U.S. House district after the death of Republican Don Young, who had held the seat for 49 years.

Kay Brown, a Democrat, said she was initially skeptical of ranked-choice voting but believes it should be used for at least a few more election cycles so voters can fairly evaluate it. She said Peltola's victory was significant.

“I have to say, I can’t really dispute the results we’ve seen,” Brown said.

Phil Izon, one of the leaders of the effort to abolish ranked-choice voting, said his grandfather's confusion about how the system works prompted him to research and then write the repeal initiative, which has been surrounded by controversy and is the subject of a legal battle aimed at keeping it off the November ballot. Arguments in the case were heard Tuesday.

Some people are more inclined to vote for just one person, which could lead to ballots being exhausted “prematurely” and “unpredictable results,” such as a Peltola victory in the House of Representatives, said Izon, who does not affiliate with any political party.

Amber Lee, an independent and one of the plaintiffs seeking to keep the repeal initiative off the ballot, says the ranked-choice system offers voters more choice.

“I think it's worth giving this more time,” she said. “We're not making progress in Alaska … the way we've been doing things.”

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Associated Press correspondent Rebecca Boone reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press writer Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.


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