Alaska will try something completely new in the fall election

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Alaska’s Supreme Court ruled this week that a new election system can go forward, clearing the way for ranked-choice voting to get its highest-profile test yet in a contested U.S. Senate race there.

Later this year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, is likely to face a challenge from a former state official, Kelly Tshibaka, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Although elections in Alaska rarely make headlines outside the state, this race is likely to be an exception and will be watched closely as a test of Trump’s strength within the GOP.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at a Senate hearing on Jan. 11.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at a Senate hearing on Jan. 11. (Greg Nash/AFP via Getty Images)

Maine has used ranked-choice voting statewide for the last few years, and a growing number of cities and localities are also using the reform. New York City’s mayoral contest was the best-known example of this last year.

But no state has tried what Alaska will do this fall. There will be no party primary in the new system. All candidates of all parties will run against one another in the Aug. 16 primary contest. The primary will not be a ranked-choice election. The top four vote getters will proceed to the Nov. 8 general election, a new system known as “final four” voting.

Only then, in the fall election, will ranked-choice voting — also known as instant-runoff voting — be implemented. Under ranked choice, voters are asked to list candidates in order of preference. Candidates are then gradually eliminated, and votes are reallocated to the next person on the list. This continues until one candidate secures over 50 percent of the vote.

This new system passed, narrowly, by voter referendum in 2020. It is intended to make the final choice of the voters more representative of the state. The hope is that it will reduce the grip that the most intense partisans on each side of the political spectrum exercise on U.S. elections through closed party primaries, followed by plurality winners in general elections.

At a polling place, voters cast their vote.
At a polling place, voters cast their vote. (Getty Images)

In Alaska’s old system, which is similar to the one used by most states, a small minority of voters turned out in primaries and effectively controlled who represented each party. This often means that the most extreme candidates advance to the fall election, because the primary becomes a contest to see who can be as uncompromising as possible.

Murkowski, a moderate who has served in the Senate since 2002, knows the old dynamic well. In 2010, she lost the GOP primary to a more conservative opponent, and wound up running a write-in campaign to keep her seat in the general election.

The open primary and final four method means that both a moderate Democrat and a left-wing Democrat can make it to the general election if they attract enough support. The same goes for moderate and right-wing Republicans, meaning there’s a good chance both Murkowski and Tshibaka will appear on the ballot this November.

In many ways, the system opens the way for moderates to make it out of the primary and have a chance of getting votes from more casual, less partisan voters in the fall election, who make up a much larger share of the total electorate.

It opens the door to the possibility that elected officials will be rewarded more for working together with others and fixing problems. The current system, reformers argue, instead rewards politicians for performative fighting and punishes them for productive compromise.

“If the best way to win is to solve problems, guess what people are going to do? They're going to solve problems. But since the best way to win right now is to not solve problems, what are they going to do? Not solve problems,” said Katherine Gehl, founder and chairman of the Institute for Political Innovation, which is one of the groups promoting these reforms.

Katherine Gehl
Katherine Gehl. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Business Wire via AP Photo, Harvard Business Review Press via Amazon)

“What we want to do is change how people in Congress get their jobs and how they keep their jobs,” Gehl said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “The best way to get and keep jobs is to solve problems on behalf of a majority of their general election voters. And in order to do that, we have to change the rules of elections.”

Gehl co-wrote a book in 2020, “The Politics Industry,” in which she and Michael Porter, a business consultant and author, argue that political innovation is crucial to reversing the doom loop in which American politics is currently stuck.

Gehl is pushing for her home state of Wisconsin to adopt a “final five” system similar to Alaska’s.

“Our goal is to see it pass in 2023, after our next gubernatorial election,” she said.

In Nevada, voters will decide this fall whether they will adopt this system. A Carson City judge rejected a challenge to place the issue on the ballot earlier this month.

Efforts are ongoing and in various stages in Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Colorado as well, Gehl said.

Gehl is a former CEO of the food company her father started, which she sold in 2015 to focus on political reform. She is now part of a coalition of activists who think they have found a way to pull American politics back from the brink.

Gehl emphasized that these reforms are not intended to favor Republicans over Democrats or vice versa. In Nevada, a lawsuit against the reforms was brought by Democrats. Gehl and Porter’s book describes the way that some members of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Maine have opposed ranked-choice voting. “What we want to do is change how people in Congress get their jobs and how they keep their jobs,” she said.

Voters fill out their ballots in the voting booths at Scarborough High School in Portland, Maine, on Nov. 2.
Voters fill out their ballots at Scarborough High School in Portland, Maine, on Nov. 2. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The bipartisan opposition to ranked-choice voting in Maine shows “the gulf between a two-party duopoly that does not want more electoral choice and a public that craves it,” said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist.

In Alaska, Gehl said, if “a majority of them would like to choose the candidate supported by President Trump, that's exactly the candidate that any election system should give them."

“But if they would like to choose Republican Lisa Murkowski, who is not supported by Trump, they should have the chance to do that as well,” she added. The reformed system, she said, will “guarantee that a majority of general election Alaska voters will get to decide.”

In the old system, she said, a small percentage of Alaskan Republicans would have had more control over who became the state’s next senator.

Gehl said that these open, final four or final five primaries, paired with ranked-choice fall elections, are “fundamentally one of the most democratic things we could possibly do right now, which is to make sure that general election votes matter.”