by Shawn Fleetwood, The Federalist, February 14, 2023
‘Alaskans are tired of being manipulated by rich people from outside [the state who] think they can tell us what to do,’ said Art Mathias.
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, out-of-state dark money poured into Alaska to hijack the state’s elections by tricking voters into implementing a ranked-choice voting system. Now, following a midterm election fraught with record-low turnout and confused voters, Alaska’s conservatives are fighting to take back control of their state’s electoral process.
Known as Alaskans for Honest Elections, the grassroots organization is leading a statewide signature-collecting effort to put an initiative on the 2024 ballot to repeal Alaska’s ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, which voters narrowly adopted in 2020. Last month, Alaska Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom certified the group’s application for a petition to repeal RCV, meaning the organization may now begin collecting signatures from voters across the state. The group must get nearly 27,000 valid signatures in order for the initiative to appear on the ballot for the 2024 contest.
“We’ve put together over 5,000 volunteers who will be gathering [signatures] all over the state,” Art Mathias, who’s helping spearhead the signature drive, told The Federalist. “We’re going to be at several outdoor shows, boating shows.” We have volunteers who will “go to their friends, to their churches, to the shopping malls. Wherever people come through, [they’ll] collect signatures.”
Under RCV, which critics call “rigged-choice voting,” voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes in the first round of voting, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and his votes are reallocated to the voter’s second-choice candidate. Such a process continues until one candidate receives a majority of votes.
With RCV also comes the potential issue of ballot exhaustion, which occurs when a ballot is cast “but does not count toward the end election result.” This can occur when voters fail to rank all the candidates on the ballot, leading to the disenfranchisement of voters (as some studies have shown).
While the 2020 RCV initiative, known as Ballot Measure 2, was sold to Alaskans as an effort to keep outside dark money from influencing the state’s elections, it was out-of-state funding that helped push the initiative over the finish line. According to an October 2020 report by Breitbart News, for instance, Yes on 2 for Better Elections, a pro-RCV group, raised more funds from outside Alaska ($6,194,081) than from within the state ($20,000).
RCV “becomes an invitation for exceeding amounts of dark money to come in and put forth a candidate that nobody knows,” Mathias said. “Alaskans are tired of being manipulated by rich people from outside [the state who] think they can tell us what to do.”
During the 2022 midterms, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the race for Alaska’s at-large congressional district as a result of ranked-choice voting. The RCV system also made a difference in the state’s Senate race, where incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski fended off a challenge from Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka. As The Federalist’s Tristan Justice reported, Murkowski’s allies were heavily involved in the push for Alaska to adopt RCV as a way to bolster the incumbent senator’s reelection prospects.
Both Palin and Tshibaka have since come out in support of repealing RCV in Alaska, with Tshibaka recently forming Preserve Democracy, a nonprofit group dedicated to “fighting the spread of Ranked Choice Voting and increasing voter turnout.”
Legislative Efforts to Repeal RCV
Beyond the efforts among grassroots activists, Republican lawmakers in the Alaska legislature are also attempting to undo many of the changes enacted by Ballot Measure 2.
Under SB 2, which state Sen. Mike Shower introduced in the upper chamber, Alaska would repeal RCV and return to a closed primary system where only voters “registered as affiliated with a political party may vote that party’s ballot.”
“A voter registered as nonpartisan or undeclared rather than as affiliated with a particular political party may vote the political party ballot of the voter’s choice unless prohibited from doing so under AS 15.25.015,” the bill reads. “A voter registered as affiliated with a political party may not vote the ballot of a different political party unless” state law permits them to do so.
While speaking with The Federalist, Shower described the feedback he’s received from his constituents over Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system, noting how “about 90 percent or more” of the people at his first town hall event for this year’s legislative session “were like, ‘Ditch this thing we hate.’”
“This rhetoric you’re hearing from Alaskans for Better Elections, from certain legislators in Alaska, and others [shows they] are living in the dream world that they have created for themselves; that they want to believe that [RCV is] this glowing example and that the public supports it,” Shower said. “I truly believe if [Alaska] held a vote tomorrow to repeal ranked-choice voting that it would pass.”
Shower went on to note how RCV often disenfranchises segments of voters that left-wing election groups often classify as marginalized, such as racial minorities and non-English speakers. Studies analyzing voting patterns in U.S. cities that utilize ranked-choice voting have shown this to be true.
According to a report from the Alaska Policy Forum, for example, after San Francisco, California, implemented an RCV system, voter turnout decreased among black and white voters, as well as those who were younger or didn’t have a high school education. Similar trends were also present in Minneapolis and Oakland, where “voters in predominately minority precincts were less likely to fully utilize their ballots, making ballot exhaustion more likely.”
A companion bill to SB 2 (known as HB 1) has also been introduced in the state’s House of Representatives by GOP Reps. George Rauscher, Kevin McCabe, and Sarah Vance.
Despite being a reliably Republican jurisdiction, Alaska’s current political dynamics — particularly in the state Senate — make advancing any meaningful election-integrity legislation somewhat difficult.
While Republicans outnumber Democrats in the upper chamber (11-9), eight GOP senators have abandoned their more conservative colleagues to form a majority coalition with the body’s nine Democrats. According to Alaska Public Media, the Senate’s leadership is composed of GOP Majority Leader Cathy Giessel and Senate President Gary Stevens, as well as Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who is chairman of the Rules Committee and coordinates with Stevens about “which bills are voted upon.”
During an interview with The Federalist, Shower, who didn’t join the ruling coalition, noted how opposition to RCV doesn’t fall along party lines and that “not all of the Democrats support ranked-choice voting.”
“There’s some [Democrats] that are kind of in the middle, and then there’s actually a few Republicans that are in on it,” he said. “A couple of the [GOP senators] that are going to tell you it’s great and they love it got [elected] because of ranked-choice voting. If there had been a normal primary, they would not have won, and they know that. So they’re going to support ranked-choice voting because to them it’s a political advantage.
“It’s not about philosophical positions or the positions of a party platform. This is about personal power,” he added.
While SB 2’s prospects for passage in the upper chamber remain in question, Stevens has publicly indicated support for keeping RCV in place for the time being, telling the Anchorage Daily News last month he “think[s] it worked fine” and that the state “should give it a chance to see if it works in the future.”
Legislators should be “very cautious and skeptical of efforts to install ranked-choice voting into [their] state because it actually does suppress the votes of very vulnerable groups,” Shower said. “All is not well here [in Alaska], and they should be advised of that.”
Shawn Fleetwood is a Staff Writer for The Federalist and a graduate of the University of Mary Washington. He also serves as a state content writer for Convention of States Action and his work has been featured in numerous outlets, including RealClearPolitics, RealClearHealth, and Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnFleetwood