Alaska to use final-four primary, ranked-choice general election for Congress. Will others follow?

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Alaska voters will use a new system to choose their representative to Congress in a special election that will draw national attention not just for how it might affect the balance of power in Washington but also how it could reshape American elections.

The Last Frontier is pioneering a nonpartisan primary election that will send the top four vote-getters in the initial contest to a ranked-choice special election that will determine who will finish the term of GOP Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving House Republican who died this month.

It will be the first time a member of Congress will be elected using both the final-four primary and ranked-choice voting.

Advocates for changing elections systems think Alaska could be a proving ground for electing members of Congress using a system that already is being embraced more and more in state and local elections.

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They hope the new system can lower the temperature in heated partisan primaries that encourage candidates to embrace the extreme ends of their party and produce candidates who better represent the overall electorate.

In its biggest test so far, New York City used ranked-choice voting to pick its new mayor last year. Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting to send representatives to Congress in 2018, but it still uses a traditional partisan primary.

Ranked-choice voting took a hit last year when New York election officials acknowledged that 135,000 test votes that were entered into its system for its mayoral election were included in partial results. The error was later corrected.

“When you’re doing the new system, image matters," said Rob Richie, CEO of FairVote, a nonprofit advocate for ranked-choice voting.

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Some states already have used ranked-choice voting in presidential primary elections as well.

Last year, legislatures in 30 states considered bills with ranked-choice voting provisions, and four states adopted new laws related to ranked-choice voting, according to FairVote.

Groups in Missouri and Nevada now are pursuing ballot issues to adopt systems similar to the one Alaska will use this year.

“I think that once voters see how well this system works, they’re much more likely to want to adopt it for where they live," said Joshua Graham Lynn, chief executive at RepresentUs, an advocate for election reform that helped pass Alaska's reforms in 2020 via ballot measure.

Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican pictured on Aug. 26, 2020, during a ceremony in Anchorage, Alaska, died in March. That triggered a special election to finish his term, accelerating Alaska's timeline for implementing a new non-partisan final-four primary and ranked-choice special election.
Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican pictured on Aug. 26, 2020, during a ceremony in Anchorage, Alaska, died in March. That triggered a special election to finish his term, accelerating Alaska's timeline for implementing a new non-partisan final-four primary and ranked-choice special election.

Alaska's new election system

In 2020, Alaska voters narrowly approved changes to its election system.

Under the new system, congressional candidates will run in an open field that sends the top four candidates regardless of party affiliation to the general election rather than running in traditional party-nominating primaries.

In the general election, voters will rank the four candidates in order of preference to determine who goes to Congress.

If any of the candidates receives a majority of first-place votes, they win the election. If no candidate has a majority, the counting restarts by dropping the candidate in last place and redistributing those votes to the candidate ranked second on their ballots. The counting process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes.

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“In this case, you ensure that with different kinds of choices on the ballot, you get the candidate who has the most widespread support among the populous," Lynn said.

The 2022 election was supposed to be the first time Alaska used its new system. Its 2022 primary was scheduled for August before the November general election.

Last month, though, Young's death triggered the need for a special election that accelerated Alaska's timeline for implementing the new system. Alaskans will vote twice on their representative to Congress in 2022: once in the special election to finish Young's term, and again for the term that starts in 2023.

In a press conference announcing the timeline for the special election, Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer likened it to "pulling a rabbit out of a hat" for election officials. The special primary is scheduled for June, and the special general election will run on the same ballot as the state's 2022 scheduled primary in August.

The accelerated timeline is forcing Alaska election officials to hasten education efforts for voters who will use the system for the first time.

“This does a pose a challenge. We were not prepared to do this until November. However, we have been getting word out," state elections director Gail Fenumiai said at a press conference in March.

Momentum for ranked-choice voting

Advocates for ranked-choice voting are hopeful that Alaska will put some wind in their sails nationally. The state is seen as fertile ground to test the system because of its history of independent, third-party and write-in candidates.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for instance, has won in the state as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary. This year, she faces a challenge under the new election system from several opponents, including one backed by former President Donald Trump.

“It’s a little easier ask to implement these reforms in a place where there already seems to be an unsettling of the traditional two-party politics," said Barry Burden, director of the Election Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.

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While state and local elections have been faster to embrace ranked-choice voting, it has been slow-moving in federal elections.

Burden said major parties have been resistant to nonpartisan open primary elections because it takes away some of their control of the nomination process.

Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2016, but the state kept partisan primaries. That is a key difference in what Alaska will do for the first time this year.

Alaska's elections could factor into how voters receive ballot issues being pursued in Missouri and Nevada this year. Groups in both states are gathering signatures to add ballot questions that would change their respective state constitutions to adopt similar systems to Alaska.

“It’s definitely going to impact us. I was glad to see it because I thought 'oh great we can show people this is what we’re talking about,'" said Sondra Cosgrove, executive director of Vote Nevada, a nonprofit that is part of a coalition pursuing reforms.

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Ballot issues are probably the easier road to adopting the combination of changes Alaska will have this year, Richie said. It is a stickier issue in legislatures, where he said lawmakers have been more cautious in adopting election reforms.

Last year, four states adopted provisions of ranked-choice voting out of 30 legislatures that considered them, according to FairVote. Florida lawmakers recently adopted a ban against ranked-choice voting.

Richie said he sees a path for ranked-choice voting adoption in federal elections similar to the one it has followed in municipal races. He pointed to Utah, where ranked-choice voting started in a few municipalities before spreading to others throughout the state.

"It just took a little tire kicking, observation that it could work," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alaska voting reform could pave way for other states to follow