By coupling nonpartisan, open primaries with ranked-choice voting, Alaska has both undercut ugly partisan polarization and offered voters greater choice
I have spent more than a year ogling Alaska’s new election system. The Last Frontier state has stepped to the front of the line battling the hyper-partisan terror that has taken ahold of our country. Colorado should race to be next.
The unique system adopted by Alaska combines two electoral innovations: an open primary and ranked-choice voting. Neither alone is unique to the state, but nobody has tried it before.
Nonpartisan, open primaries put all candidates from every party onto the same primary ballot. The system has been implemented in several jurisdictions.
Most notably, California has used such a system for the past decade to select the top two candidates from any party to face of in the general election. That means that in Republican-dominated districts, two Republicans will face off in November elections; vice versa in Democratic strongholds.
The point of the system is to hep moderate the polarization that has become so prevalent in America politics. While a Democrat may not be able to win in the hypothetical district above, voters are better served by choosing between two competing visions of the Republican party. Democrats and unaffiliated centrists may form a coalition with center-right Republicans to support a more mainstream candidate over a far right bomb-thrower.
Without that type of system, we end up with elections like the one in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Rep. Lauren Boebert effectively won the general election after winning the proportionally smaller Republican-only primary. Despite what Adam Frisch would have people believe, the district’s partisan makeup all but dictates that it will send a Republican, any Republican, to Congress.
Unfortunately, this outcome is all too frequent across the country. Less than one in 10 congressional seats are competitive between the two parties. That creates a perverse incentive for candidates in noncompetitive seats to demonize members of the other party and engage in bloodlust rhetoric.
Nonpartisan, open primaries allow districts to choose between more moderate representation and the extreme fringes on either end.
With a decade of data to guide it, Alaska has improved on the California model. They coupled it with ranked-choice voting. All candidates from all parties appear on the same primary ballot, voters rank them on a bubble sheet (they can rank all or leave off any they don’t approve of), and the votes are tabulated.
Any candidate winning 50% plus one wins outright. If no candidates eclipses that bar, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and those ballots are reallocated to the second-choice candidate marked. Eventually, one candidate comes away with a majority.
It eliminates the need for and expense associated with runoffs, and it allows for greater choice on the ballot. That in turn leads to greater consensus and less ugly attacks.
For example, in the first trial of the new system, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin lost to Democrat Mary Peltola. While Peltola ran a good, positive campaign, Palin relied on the tried and true tactic of smearing the third candidate on the ballot, moderate Republican Nick Begich III, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and insufficiently conservative.
Palin’s tactics backfired. When Begich was eliminated after the first round, enough voters either picked Peltola or simply did not rank a second candidate, leading to Palin’s defeat. The deep, but narrow support that would normally carry her through a party primary and safe general election collapsed.
Instead, Alaska got its first indigenous female member of Congress. In fact, according to FairVote.org, women and people of color tend to do better under ranked choice voting than traditional electoral systems.
It may be a tough sell to partisans who were elected under the current system to implement something new. But there is a glimmer of hope. In 2021 the legislature allowed municipalities adopting ranked-choice voting to participate in coordinated elections across the state. In the next year, Boulder and Broomfield will join several other localities already using ranked-choice voting.
In might take a few years, but the choice is clear. Colorado should get in line to adopt nonpartisan, open primaries coupled with ranked-choice voting.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.