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Alaska’s open primaries put to the test with special election for US House

June 15, 2022 by Liz Ruskin, full Alaska Public Media article available here Saturday’s special primary election for U.S. House was the first test of Alaska’s new election system. Did it pass?

Jason Grenn, an advocate of the voting system adopted as Ballot Measure 2 in 2020, called the primary a big success.

“We had a wide and diverse candidate list,” he said.

Grenn said even voters like himself, whose favorite candidate did not make the final four, “still see that they have choices, after this primary gets certified, that they’ll still have someone that they can be excited about.”

Plus, turnout was great, Grenn said, who is the executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, a nonprofit that educates voters on the new system.

The Division of Elections is still counting ballots and expects to release updated results Wednesday around 5 p.m.

The voting that ended Saturday was actually Phase 1 of the test — a nonpartisan special primary, with 48 candidates on one ballot. Voters appear to have chosen Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, nonpartisan Al Gross and Democrat Mary Peltola as the four who will advance to the special general.

But Peltola is only a few thousand votes ahead of Republican Tara Sweeney, and Sweeney is only a few hundred ahead of the nonpartisan Santa Claus. Tens of thousands of ballots, many from Anchorage, are yet to be counted.

Phase 2 of the test comes on Aug. 16, when voters will rank the candidates in what’s been likened to an instant runoff election. The winner will serve the remaining months of Congressman Don Young’s term.

In the special primary, some regions have a high percentage of rejected ballots. Grenn said he’s waiting for details from the Division of Elections, but he suspects a lot of the rejections were because voters did not have a witness sign their ballot envelope.

“That had nothing to do with Ballot Measure 2 or these changes,” he said.

This was also a test of another sort. It was Alaska’s first statewide election by mail. Grenn said maybe voters in some areas weren’t familiar with the requirements.

The Republican Party chair Ann Brown didn’t respond to an inquiry for this story.

Democratic Party director Lindsay Kavanaugh said the special was probably not a great test of the new style of primary, because of the mailed ballot and because candidates had only a few weeks to campaign. But she said the preliminary results suggest it’s not all about name recognition and raising money.

“Mary Peltola is a first-time statewide candidate. She was out-fundraised by the others … and yet she, you know, right now, is still over the finish line,” Kavanaugh said. “So I think that we have to really think about when we talk about viability, what does that mean?”

Republican media professional Art Hackney also finds Peltola’s standing interesting. The result could change, but so far, it looks like she got more votes than four candidates who had larger campaign budgets.

“Those are the kinds of things that are telling that,” Hackney said. “The institutional wisdom, ‘Oh, you got money. You got support, blah, blah, blah’ — it doesn’t work if you’re not a compelling candidate.”

Hackney, who will be working on Nick Begich’s campaign, also holds the view that the special election was just too, well, special, to be a true test of the new open primary.

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