Alaska court weighs arguments over new election process

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Alaska Election Reforms (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Alaska Election Reforms (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Political parties “have no right to be gatekeepers to the ballot,” an attorney argued Tuesday in urging the Alaska Supreme Court to uphold a voter-approved electoral system that would end party primaries in the state and institute ranked-choice voting in general elections.

Scott Kendall, who helped write the ballot measure, argued on behalf of the group behind the initiative, which narrowly passed in 2020. Laura Fox, an attorney for the state, joined Kendall in asking that the court uphold a lower court ruling in favor of the new system.

The system is unique among states and viewed by supporters as a way to encourage civility and cooperation among elected officials. This year's elections would be the first in which the system is used, if it stands. Under the open primary, the top four vote-getters in a race, regardless of party affiliation, would advance to the general election.

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Winfree said the court would try to issue a prompt decision.

Attorney Kenneth Jacobus; Scott Kohlhaas, who unsuccessfully ran for the state House in 2020 as a Libertarian; Bob Bird, chair of the Alaskan Independence Party and Bird’s party sued in late 2020 over the initiative, challenging its constitutionality.

Jacobus, in court documents, asked that the initiative be voided. He suggested that if it weren't struck down entirely, the portions that remained could be stayed and put to voters again. Kendall said he knew of no basis for such an approach.

Jacobus theorized the initiative passed because of provisions that call for new campaign disclosure requirements. When asked Tuesday if that assertion was supported by the record, Jacobus cited in part the 2002 voter rejection of a ranked-choice system.

He said "nothing's changed” since then, except that ranked-choice voting was lumped in with the disclosure provisions as part of the initiative that passed in 2020.

“Well, there's been 18 years of change in the world, hasn’t there?” Justice Susan Carney said. She noted later that when the elements were combined, they passed.

Jacobus said he disagreed with a prior court decision that allowed the provisions to be wrapped into one measure, prompting a back-and-forth with justices that caused Winfree at one point to urge Jacobus to get back to the point of the claims he was raising in this case.

Fox on Tuesday defended the new system as constitutional. Kendall said there is a severability clause if the court “found some small portion of the measure untenable.”

Kendall said the state and country are “at a turning point,” politically and economically, and that Alaska voters created a “new electoral system that they maybe believe is an attempt to turn the tide toward reason and compromise. They have the right to do that. They have the right to make that experiment.”

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