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New film examines Alaska's experiences with open primaries and ranked-choice voting

The new film “Majority Rules” documents the open primary and ranked choice elections for Alaska’s at-large congressional seat in 2022. It features former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is running as the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Open primaries and ranked choice voting are not simply a ploy to favor one political party over another.

It is a fundamental and revolutionary shift in the way we select our elected officials. It is designed to counteract our coarsening of political discourse, make all voters more inclusive, open elections to more candidates, and encourage elected officials to make informed decisions based on what is best for voters, not what might be used against them in a primary.

“Because of the way our system is structured, these primaries that are so heavily skewed in favor of one party or the other, the election in many races is already called before the general election even happens. That's very different from 20 years ago,” filmmaker AJ Schnack told me in a video interview.

Schnack's new documentary, “Majority Rules,” about open primaries and ranked-choice voting in Alaska's 2022 election, is coming to Boise for a special screening at The Flicks on July 17. Schnack will be in attendance at the screening.

The film should be particularly informative for voters in Idaho.

The Open Primaries initiative will be put to the ballot in Idaho in November. It calls on voters to approve a new system of open primaries and a four-candidate ranked-choice general election.

It is the same system that Alaska voters approved in 2020 and put into action in the 2022 election.

If the Open Primaries initiative comes to the ballot in Idaho and is approved by the majority of voters, the primaries would be open to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation or political affiliation.

The four candidates with the most votes in the primaries would then advance to the general election in November, using a “ranked choice” system in which voters rank their candidates in order of preference.

If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes go to each voter's second candidate. This process is repeated until two candidates remain. The candidate with the most votes wins.

The Republican primary in Idaho is open only to registered Republicans, meaning that about 264,000 unaffiliated voters and 126,000 Democrats are disenfranchised. In Idaho, many elections are decided in the primary, often between a more traditional Republican and a more extreme candidate.

In California, which has open primaries but only two candidates in the general election, the general election usually consists of only two Democrats—one moderate and one liberal.

Note that it is the Democrats in California who oppose ranked choice voting. The dominant party does not want it.

“What fascinated me about working on this film is that in different states, the party that thinks they have the system figured out is always the one that hates the idea of ​​us moving to open primaries and ranked choice voting,” Schnack said. “It's not about Republicans or Democrats; it's literally about who thinks they know how the system works and who doesn't want the change.”

Democrat Mary Peltola (right) defeated former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in a four-candidate race for Alaska's congressional seat when she received 55% of the vote after three rounds of counting in Alaska's newly implemented ranked-choice voting system in 2022.Democrat Mary Peltola (right) defeated former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in a four-candidate race for Alaska's congressional seat when she received 55% of the vote after three rounds of counting in Alaska's newly implemented ranked-choice voting system in 2022.

Democrat Mary Peltola (right) defeated former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in a four-candidate race for Alaska's congressional seat when she received 55% of the vote after three rounds of counting in Alaska's newly implemented ranked-choice voting system in 2022.

Criticism of the ranking selection

The ranked-choice voting system is not without controversy, and opponents in Alaska are trying to put a bill to abolish the system on the ballot in November. (In 2022, the system famously led to Sarah Palin losing a special election to replace a U.S. House member.)

One criticism is that the system is too confusing, requiring voters to learn about a number of candidates in the primary and then the four candidates in the general election before they can make an informed decision.

“I think the 'it's too confusing' argument is one of the weaker arguments,” Schnack said.

Schnack said we make ranked-choice decisions every day, like a group of office workers deciding what to eat for lunch. Having a menu instead of a binary choice opens up new options for voters, and voters should definitely be smart enough to rank their candidate choices.

“It just makes so much sense to me that you can vote for someone you really believe represents your values. That's the first choice,” Schnack said. “But number 2 is saying, 'OK, I can live with this person if they're probably the person who's going to end up being the choice between the final two candidates.'”

I actually think the “too confusing” argument is a clue: It shows that opponents of ranked choice voting admit that they believe voters don’t really think about the issues and policy positions – they just look at the letter at the end of a name and vote for the party.

Because there is more at stake, ranked-choice voting forces people to look at the candidates' positions on the issues at hand.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the campaign trail in 2022 in this still from the new film U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the campaign trail in 2022 in this still from the new film

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the campaign trail in 2022 in this still from the new film “Majority Rules,” which documents the introduction of open primaries and ranked-choice voting in Alaska in 2022.

Make the parliamentary election important

Schnack told the story of a Libertarian candidate in an Alaska race who made it to the final four in the general election and participated in a debate. Schnack posed a question to the debate moderators: Would the Libertarian candidate have participated in the debate at all if there hadn't been a primary of the top four candidates? The answer? Probably not. Debate organizers would probably have invited only Republican and Democratic candidates.

“One of the (most important things for me) was just the aspect of encouraging more voices to be involved in the process when it comes to the general election,” Schnack said. “And I think there are certainly a lot of people younger than me who would like to be involved and have more of a say in the system, but are often kind of shut out because we really have this binary election where we're only going to have the Republican and the Democrat.”

Schnack said it's too early to measure the success of open primaries and ranked-choice voting, and that not enough states are using these procedures to say whether they are the solution. But it's promising.

“I think we know that we are largely dissatisfied with the system as it stands. And having worked on it for two years now, I think it's worth doing a large-scale experiment to see if this system is better,” Schnack said.

Come see the film for yourself when it screens at The Flicks on July 17, and stay afterward to ask Schnack a few questions.

“I think the movie says it's possible to do things differently,” Schnack said. “And if we do things differently, if a candidate doesn't feel beholden to party interests, if they feel they can act in the best interests of their constituents, no matter who on the political spectrum that candidate is, is that a better system for Idaho? For Alaska? For America in general.”

When you go

A special screening of “Majority Rules” is scheduled for Wednesday, July 17, 7 p.m., at The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., Boise.

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with director and screenwriter AJ Schnack, former Idaho Governor Butch Otter, former Senator Marv Haggard and Ashely Prince, campaign manager for Idahoans for Open Primary.

Advance tickets cost $12 at The Flicks box office or The Flicks online store.

Anna Harden

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